Chapter 1: Emerald and Amber
==> Be the Young Dirk Strider
At thirteen, you've been a page for three years and you've already made a name for yourself. When you entered page training, you were already very knowledgable with a sword. Two years later, you were nearly a master. Your dad taught you everything you know. Your little brother's too young to wield a sword, but he'll start training as soon as he can pick one up. He'll be taught to be the best, just like you. Because you're Striders, and Striders are always the best.
Despite being so young, you're already better than the older pages. Knights were already whispering and debating over who would take you as their squire. There's already high hopes for you, and you won't disappoint them.
It's the beginning of a new training year. All the pages are gathered in the great hall for the yearly speech given by the head-knight. You're standing with the other third years. Behind you are the fourth years and in front of you are the second years. The brand new first years are in the front, small and timid and staring wide-eyed at everything around them. You were never like that, even as a first year. You were always calm and collected. Cool.
You stand with your hands clasped lightly behind your back. Your chin is held high, but your back is slouched as you lean heavily on one leg. Your golden-orange eyes are staring straight forward at a spot in the distance. You've heard this speech twice already. It rarely changes.
The pages around you look just as bored as you feel, though you know your expression is just one of indifference.
When the old man is done speaking, the king steps up to say some encouraging words. He's young and fairly new. The old king had died only recently. When you're dismissed, you could sigh with relief. Of course you don't. The other third years are talking around you, jostling each other playfully as you all shuffle out to the training fields. They all give you a wide berth. You have a few close friends, but most of your peers are too intimidated or nervous to speak to you or even get close. You suppose it's the blank look you level at anyone who tries.
A few first years are slipping quickly through the crowd, desperate to reach the training fields on time. You never rushed as a first year and you definitely don't now. Despite being the fastest around, you usually travel at a calm pace.
Because so few people dare to touch you, you're caught completely off guard when someone collides with your back.
The sudden force knocks you off balance and you stumble forward. You would have probably fallen on your face if it wasn't for the arms that wrap around your waist to hold you up.
"Whoops! Sorry, mate!" An unfamiliar voice says.
You stand up straight and his arms release you. You slowly turn to look over your shoulder. Your lips are pressed into a thin, disapproving line and you can feel the fire burning in your amber eyes.
Standing behind you is a short kid with unruly black hair that flips up in the front. His eyes are the deepest shade of emerald you've ever seen. He's smiling at you and you can see his front teeth are rather big and look awkward with his boyish features. He's wearing a page uniform and his tunic shows he's a first year.
Your eyes narrow. Everyone around you has stopped. They're staring at you and the boy with wide eyes and open mouths. No one dared run into you, let alone smile afterward.
But he's right there. Smiling. And he doesn't even flinch under the weight of your gaze.
"Hey, Jake! Hurry up!" Someone calls.
The boy looks past you and waves at someone you don't see and don't care to see. "Coming!" He pats you on the shoulder as he passes. "Again, sorry about that, mate. Won't happen again." And then he rushes off to join his friends.
You stare after him, both intrigued and infuriated at the boy's obvious lack of respect. You run a hand through your blonde hair. You're going to have to teach him a lesson or two.
The next few days pass much like they always have. You have morning training, afternoon classes, evening training, and do your homework at night. That first day, all your friends could talk about was the boy who had the nerve to run into you. When asked a question about it, you would always shrug like you couldn't care less. You shouldn't care. But every time you pass a group of first years, you look for that messy black hair and that buck-toothed smile.
You don't know why you care and it bothers you that you do.
Whenever you're in the dining hall, you catch sight of him across the room. He's small and skinny and his clothes hang off him like they have nothing to hold onto. His hair is always in a state of mess, like it can never be tamed. You can always see a good portion of his teeth. He talks loudly. You can always hear his voice no matter how far away you sit. He talks with his hands a lot, flailing around those pale, skinny arms. You think he has the loudest laugh you've ever heard. He's the type that normally annoys you. Yet you can't stop watching.
There must be something wrong with you. You've never noticed a first year, or anyone really, like this. Not even your friends. They got close to you though their own persistence and need to stay by your side. Whether it was to look cool or pick up tips or to cheat off your homework, you don't know. Somehow they enjoy your quiet company. You don't mind. It means you're not alone.
But even your friends tend to flinch at your glare. They shrink under the weight of your amber eyes and try to laugh it off, but it always sounds nervous. You know they sometimes find your frequent silence unnerving. They're always cautious of you, like they're afraid they might set you off. If you give them a look, they'll stop what they're doing. None of them have ever stood up to you. They're friendly enough, but they treat you differently.
Not like that boy, who smiled at you like you were no different than anyone else. Despite being three years younger, he treated you as an equal and it intrigues you.
A week after the orientation ceremony, all pages begin working on sword play during morning training. For the first week, it had been solely about conditioning and preparing your bodies. Now each week you would train on a different skill or weapon. When that was done, a different schedule would take place. Even though all the pages are working on the same thing, they're all at different levels. The second, third, and fourth years split off into groups and then pairs to practice what they remember. The first years get an intro to the basics. How to hold a sword, how to balance it, how do basic swings.
After a few warm-up duels with several of your friends, all of which you win easily, one of the instructors pulls you aside. He asks if you'll help teach the first years, since you're already advanced and don't need the reminders the other pages do. You shrug and say yes. He leads you over to the group of ten year-olds that are trying to pick out wooden swords from the barrels nearby. They're organized by weight and you immediately notice the familiar patch of black hair at a barrel containing heavy swords.
You step up behind him and shove one hand in your pocket, the other still holding your wooden sword. His hands are on the handle of a particularly large sword as he tries to yank it free from the others. He's standing on his toes to do it. You feel the corner of your lip twitch in amusement.
He finally pulls it free with a triumphant "Ah ha!" But then he's lost his balance and stumbles backward, throwing off by the weight of the wooden sword. You drop your sword and flash-step up behind him, a skill your father taught you, and catch him with one arm around his waist. Your other hand goes to steady the blunt wooden blade in his hands. His back hits your chest, but this time you're prepared and you don't move an inch.
"Oompf!" The air rushes from his lungs and he tilts his head back to look up at you. Wayward strands of black hair are tickling your collarbone. His deep green eyes are clouded with confusion and then light with recognition. He smiles. "Why, hello there." He says cheerfully.
"I thought you said you wouldn't fall into me again." You say, holding onto an indifferent expression and a level voice.
"Oh dear, I suppose I did!" He laughs and you feel the corner of your lip twitch again. "Sorry about that, old chap! This thing is quite heavy." He says indicating the sword still clenched in his grip.
You let go of his waist and step around him, gently plucking the sword from his hands and easily holding it so it leans back on your shoulder. Your other hand sinks into your pocket. "That's because this sword is too big for a kid like you." You jerk your chin in the direction of the barrels containing lighter swords, where all the other first years are gathered. "You want those ones."
His brow furrows and he makes a face. He looks ridiculous with those big teeth of his. "Oh, phooey. I don't care much for swords anyway."
You step up to the barrel and shove the heavy sword back in with the others before turning back to him. Both your hands nestle in your pockets. "Not the sword's fault you can't pick it up." You say. You walk over to the lighter swords. Most of the first years have already picked out their swords. You slide past them and pick one up before returning to where you left the boy. "Try this one." You say, tossing the sword through the air at him.
He makes a small yelping sound and scrambles to catch it, but after some flailing, it hits the ground. "I don't think you're supposed to throw swords at others!" He chastises lightly, bending down to pick it up.
You shrug, picking up the sword you had dropped when you went to catch him. There's a definite smirk on your lips. You can feel it. That upturn quirk of your lips that means you're actually amused. When he sees it, his face lights up. He's grinning at you. You've never seen eyes so green.
"Jake!" The instructor calls, waving the boy over. The other first years are already lining up on an empty patch of grass. Several of them are giving you and Jake wide-eyed stares.
"Yessir!" Jake calls, taking a few hurried steps before stopping and turning back to you. "Thanks for the help, mate. What can I call you?"
"Dirk." You say. It felt strange giving out your name. Usually people already knew who you were. Introductions were rarely necessary. Only a formality.
The boy smiles like you just gave him a present. He steps back toward you, stopping right in front of you. He holds out a hand and you stare at it a moment. You know he means to shake your hand, but it seems so strange coming from a first year. You finally lift your own hand and take his. His hand is small in yours and his fingers are slender, but he has a firm and steady handshake. You return it.
"Nice to meet you, Dirk. My name is Jake." He says with so much enthusiasm that your smirk widens.
"So I heard." You say and he just continues to smile. You release his hand and your arm drops back down to your side. "Get to class, kid." You say, nodding toward the others.
He throws his head back and laughs. It's loud and high pitched with youth, but it somehow causes your smirk to form an actual smile. "Yessir!" He says perhaps a little too loudly. He gives you a mock salute and bounds back to his peers.
You watch him go. The image of his emerald eyes is burned into your mind and his laugh is stuck in your ears.
You have the nagging suspicion that you'll be seeing a lot more of Jake in the future.
Chapter 2: Best Bros
I love these guys so much. Going through the majority of their lives is going to be an experience.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
==> You are Dirk Strider and You are Fourteen
The yule time festival is long over by the time you return to the castle.
You return quieter, even more reserved that you'd been previously. You throw yourself into your studies. You train harder than you've ever done before, pushing yourself to your physical limit. You absorb everything in your classes. All your free time is spent in the library, studying. The only time you return to your room is to sleep.
You haven't said anything to your roommate since you returned. You haven't said anything to any of your friends. The only time you speak is during class to answer a question. When your friends try to talk to you, you just nod or shake your head. Sometimes you'll mumble one word answers. They look at you strangely and give you the space you're obviously asking for.
But you're not asking for space. You distance yourself from everyone in an attempt to avoid facing your inner turmoil. While working, both physically and mentally, you can avoid thinking about anything else. You can just focus on getting better, stronger, smarter, faster. When you communicate with others, they threaten to break through the wall of numbness around you and set free all your chaotic emotions.
You don't want that. But you do. You distancing yourself is a defense mechanism that your body automatically put in place, but inside all you want is someone to reach out to you. No one has and you fear no one will. Your emotions will eat you from the inside out and soon there will be nothing but a cold husk of the boy you used to be.
It's only been a week since you returned and your friends are already avoiding you. You still sit with them during meals, but you say nothing and they have stopped trying to talk to you. During training they've stopped joking around with you. They still occasionally hang around you out of obligation, but you know your silence and deadpan expression is making them nervous. Before you were just calm and cool. Now your expression is hard and your eyes are harsh. You watch people flinch away from your amber eyes, feeling a pang of sadness in your already withered heart.
After only a week you're fearing the worst when a familiar voice breaks through your cloud of despair.
It's late. The sun has set and dinner has long been over. You're outside, sword in hand, hammering away at a wooden dummy. The dummy has various levels with poles jutting out that spin when you hit them. You've finished your homework and felt stifled in the library. You needed air. So here you are, your sword in hand, slashing away at the poor dummy.
Your shirt is off and abandoned on the ground nearby. The crisp night air of winter chills the sweat on your bare torso. You swing particularly hard and your blade sinks into one of the poles. It sticks just long enough that you can't defend yourself as a pole on a different level spins around. It hits the side of your face and you hiss as pain blossoms to life in your cheek and jaw.
You pull your sword free and step back. You're breathing heavily, your chest heaving. You switch your sword to your right hand and lift your left to touch your left cheek. It stings, but it's still mostly numb. You move your jaw back and forth, happy to find it still works, even if it's painful. You can feel your eyes starting to water from the sudden shock and pain. You blink them away rapidly. No. Even if they're not real tears, they could lead to it.
The only solution is to distract yourself and continue practicing. You lift your sword once again and step into position.
"Why not take a break, mate?"
You spin around fast and even when your body stops, your head is still spinning. Your sword is pointed out while you try to find the speaker. You already know who it is by the time your eyes settle on him.
Jake is standing there, leaning against a stationary dummy not too far away. His arms are crossed over his chest.
You glare at him, but you're not sure he can see it in the dark. The moon is covered by clouds. The only light is coming from a torch you set up so you could see. But it's behind you now and your face is in shadow while you stare at him.
You slowly straighten and lower your sword to your side. "How long have you been there?" You ask, your voice sounding rough and harsh. You haven't spoken so many words to anyone outside of classes for a week.
"I daresay, it's been a while." He says, idly tapping his chin with one finger. "How does your cheek feel?" He asks with a wide smile.
Your glare narrows. "Go away, Jake."
"Not a chance, old chap! This is the first time I've gotten to see you since you got back. Not been avoiding me, have you?" He asks it as a joke, but you feel guilt stab at you.
You have been avoiding Jake, just as you've been avoiding everyone. He's waved to you across the dining hall, and across the training fields, but you haven't acknowledged him once. You always turn away before you can see his frown of disappointment. You knew it was only a matter of time before he sought you out like this.
You say nothing and his smile slowly fades. He pushes off from where he was leaning against the dummy and walks toward you. He hasn't changed much since you first met him. He's still small, lanky, and skinny, with that mop of dark hair. He still moves with the awkwardness of a child trying to act grown up.
For the past year and a half, the kid has stuck to you. Your friends your age find him annoying, but you enjoy his endless enthusiasm and his bright, toothy smile. He's the complete opposite of you in so many ways and you find it refreshing. So you let him hang around you. You help him with his studies and his training. He would always search for you. You never went out of your way to find him, but you had a habit of placing yourself in places you knew he would be. The more time you spend with him, he more he grew on you. Soon enough, you enjoyed his company more than that of the boys you'd spent years with.
He stops in front of you and looks up at your face. You have several inches on him, being on the cusp of puberty and him still just a kid. He examines your face for a long moment, his face scrunched up in a ridiculous expression of concentration. You just stare back at him blankly, taking refuge in the shadows you know hide your face.
"What's the matter, mate?" He asks, his voice soft and serious. All of his smiles and joking tones are gone. It hits you hard and you look away.
You say nothing, reverting back into comfortable silence. You hide in it, refusing to open up to him.
When it becomes clear that you're not going to say anything, Jake sighs. He walks away and you think he's leaving. It surprises you. You didn't think he'd give up that easily. Your heart tightens, the small corner of your mind screaming for him to come back, to break you out of your shell. You glance after him. He's stopped. He bends down and scoops up your abandoned shirt.
He turns and stomps back to you. Actually stomps. His boots hitting the ground hard to accent how unhappy he is with you. The serious look on his face is almost comical as he thrusts out your shirt. "Put it on." He demands. You almost feel like smiling. Almost.
After a moments pause, you sheath your sword and take your shirt. You slip it on. It's cold from sitting on the ground, but warmer than your bare skin. You shiver as the thick, long-sleeved tunic settles over you. You look at him with a slight downturn of your lips. He nods, satisfied.
"Good." He says. Then he grabs your arm and drags you away from the dummies. You follow behind him, not resisting. He sits you down on a bench and then takes the seat next to you. You shiver again. The wooden bench is cold. Now that you're not moving, the chill is starting to seep in. Training this late during late winter wasn't exactly your smartest idea, but you had to get out. Jake apparently understands this and doesn't push you to go inside yet.
Instead he sits there and swings one leg over the bench so he's straddling it, facing you. He crosses his arms over his chest and you shove your hands in your pockets. You're both quiet. You think he's giving you time to prepare yourself, but you don't think you'll ever have enough time. It's going to painful either way.
"So…?" He prompts.
You stare at the ground in front of you. "So what?"
"You leave a week before yule time begins without a word, and then return several weeks after it ends, again, without a word. You haven't been talking to anyone and you've been avoiding me. I want to know why." He demands, putting enough firmness in his voice to let you know he means business. Unfortunately you can't take him seriously. Not when he looks like a skinny child trying to demand something of you. He looks ridiculous, but perhaps that's what makes you finally crack.
You sigh in defeat. "My father died." You say, barely hearing your own voice.
Suddenly everything inside you breaks. The carefully constructed wall shatters and your emotions run rampant. They tear through you, driving the air from your lungs, crushing your heart, and weighing you down with such force, you temporarily forget where you are.
The next thing you're aware of is Jake's hand on your cheek, his thumb wiping away tears you didn't know were there. It stings, being your bruised cheek and all, but you don't even care. Nothing compares to the pain in your chest. Jake scoots forward until he's pressed against your side and his arms wrap around you, squeezing you tightly. His head rests on your shoulder.
You're shaking. When did that start? You don't even remember. You just know you're sitting there shaking, tears running silently down your face, while your breath is ragged and shuttering. One of Jake's hands run up and down your arm.
"I'm sorry, old chap. How did it happen?" He asks, his voice soft. He sounds so calm and you latch onto that, steadying yourself.
You wet your lips and take a shuttering breath. "He came down with a sudden fever. He didn't last long after that." You say, surprised by how steady your voice sounds. Even if it is thick with tears.
"So you spent the month with your family?" You nod. You're not sure if he sees it, but he at least feels the movement. He continues. "Your father meant a lot to you, didn't he, mate?"
You nod again. A hiccuping sob shaking your chest. His grip on you tightens. His head is still resting on your shoulder. You tilt your head and bury your face in his messy dark hair. You finally let yourself cry. It's silent. No sobbing and hysterics. But tears stream down your face and into Jake's hair. The occasional hiccup wracks through your body.
You didn't cry at his bedside. You didn't cry at his funeral. You had to be strong for your siblings and your step-mom. But now, in the darkness while being held by a boy younger than you, you finally cry.
Your father had been the most important person in your life. He taught you everything you knew about a sword. He taught you how to be fast, both in body and in mind. He taught you how to be strong. He taught you how to not show weakness. He taught you how to be a Strider. He was your role model. You wanted to grow up and make him proud. But now he's gone and he'll never see you be a knight.
Your mother died in childbirth. They managed to save Dave. You were saddened, but your father was there to help you be strong. He told you to look out for your new brother. He needed you. Then your father remarried quickly. You think he did it so you and Dave would have a mother-figure in your lives. Lady Lalonde wasn't a bad mom. She was fond of the drink, but otherwise she was a good mother. A year after Dave, your sister Rose was born. You were a happy family for only a few years and now the four of you were on your own.
A heavy burden was placed on your shoulders. You have to grow up fast, become the man of the family. Dave is only four. You have to teach him everything your father taught you. You have to teach your little brother how to be a Strider. You have to be strong. The strongest. You can't let your family down.
Somehow you're saying all of this out loud. It comes out in a rush of words, starting out weak, but gaining strength. You tell Jake everything about your family, your childhood, your siblings, your step-mom. You tell him all about your father, everything you can remember. You tell him your fears, that you'll somehow let down the people who need you most. You tell him how you fear for your little brother, who will probably never remember his father. You tell him how you fear not being able to raise him right because you're stuck here trying to become a knight. You tell him you need to be a knight as fast as possible for Dave's sake.
You tell him everything and he sits there and listens, occasionally nodding his head but not saying anything. By the time you're done and you've run out of words, your throat hurts but your eyes are dry and you feel a whole lot lighter. Your chest is no longer tight and your shoulders don't feel so heavy. Jake is still holding you and your cheek is still resting atop his head.
He only speaks when it becomes clear that you're done. "He sounds like a stand-up man, Strider. You should be proud to be his flesh and blood."
You snort a small laugh that surprises both of you. A small smile is on your lips. "Thanks, Jake. You know, for listening…" You say softly.
He leans back to look at you, but his arms remain around you. He's grinning at you and you can't even pretend you're not smiling back. "That's what best mates are for, Strider!"
You're not sure when Jake became your best bro, but when he says it, you know it feels right. He's the only one who wasn't put off by your cold silence and hard glares. He's the only one who cared enough to pry open your shell and release the emotions inside. Despite being three years younger and the opposite of you in many ways, Jake English is your best friend.
He finally lets go of you and you're saddened by his absence. He stands and holds out a hand to you. "Now let's go inside. It's colder than the dickens out here!"
You take his hand and the two of you race back to the castle, shoving each other and laughing the entire way.
This chapter reminds me of a quote from The Heir and His Knight:
"He deals with your depression and anger the only way he knows how: by sword fighting. It gives you the opportunity to let out your emotions in a good old fashion strife. This is how Striders deal with emotions."
I love Dirk/Bro.
Chapter 3: Yuletide
==> Be Jake English
You are fifteen and this is possibly the most exciting day of your life. More exciting than the day you lost your first tooth. More exciting than the day you learned to ride a horse. More exciting than the day you escaped your strict household to leave for page training. More exciting than the day you first shot a bow. More exciting than the day you shot your first deer. Even more exciting than the day you graduated into squirehood.
Today is the day you get to see your best friend for the first time in over a year, and the first time as two squires.
You're nearly bouncing in your saddle in anticipation, much to your horse's annoyance. Your knight is riding ahead of you on the road. When your horse gives a frustrated short, he turns to look at you over his shoulder. He's an older knight, with plenty of scars and experiences. He claims to have known your father, even says you remind him of the man. You just take his word for it. You don't really remember much of him anyway.
"Excited, kid?" He asks with raised brows.
"Depends. Are you certain he'll be there?"
"I know for a fact he will. We grew up together and we both like to spend the yule holidays with our families." He gives you a knowing smirk and a wink. "And where he goes, his little squire will go."
You grin, uncaring that your face is nearly numb with cold. "In that case, I am quite excited, sir!" He laughs and turns back around.
You can't believe how lucky you are to have a knight who grew up with Dirk's knight. Apparently they both went to the town where they grew up during the yule time. Which means you get to see Dirk for the first time since…well you're not entirely sure. Time gets away from you. But you do know that it has been far too long!
After Dirk left page training, you had no problem making new friends. But none of them were as interesting or as fun to be around as Dirk. You're not sure what drew you to him. He's quiet and doesn't tolerate other people very well. But he's sharp as a tack and brilliant with a blade. You look up to him quite a bit. But it's more than that. Despite being older than you, he was more than willing to extend a hand of friendship. You're proud to say you know more about Dirk Strider than anyone else, excluding family. Or maybe including them. You're not really sure.
What you are sure about is that you and your knight mentor just rounded the top of a hill and you can see the coastal town below. The buildings stretch along a wide cove. Docks reach out into the water of the harbor. Ships of all shapes an sizes with all sorts of sails can be seen against the watery blue. You grew up near the coast, so the ocean isn't a sight you've never seen. However, you've never seen a coastal town this large.
You only get a few seconds to stare in awe before your knight is already urging his horse along the road again. You follow after him.
The city is guarded by tall stone walls. Your knight explains that, as one of the largest, most profitable cities in the kingdom, it needs to be protected. When you pass the gates, you're immediately in awe. The architecture of the buildings is different than the other towns you've seen. Even the coloring of the stone and brick is different. Decorations are everywhere as people get ready for the yule time celebrations.
Snow begins to fall, the light fluffy flakes floating gracefully down. Those outside look at you and your knight curiously. They seem to recognize him and they smile at you. You smile in return. Few things could ruin your good cheer.
Your knight leads you through the city toward the wealthier area. The buildings get taller and the decorations more extravagant. The road curves upward and you both follow the incline towards where the nobles live. Soon the buildings of the city are left behind, replaced by large homes that look more like small castles.
"There's where he lives." Your knight says, pointing to a well kept, quite large manor ahead on the left. "I live a few more houses down, on the right. You're more than welcome to use one of our guest rooms, of course if you'd rather-"
"Dirk." You say, your voice barely a whisper but it still makes your mentor pause. He looks at you and then follows your gaze.
A man whom you assume is a knight, but who is dressed in more casual noble garb, just stepped onto the street. A woman was at his side, her hands on his arm. A little behind them is an all too familiar figure. His blonde hair is a startling contrast to the dark maroons and purples he's wearing. As a squire, he has to wear the colors of his mentor knight. Your mentor's colors are several shades of yellow and gold.
He's standing hunched over, his head down and his chin tucked into the fur-lined neck of his tunic. A thick cloak is wrapped around his shoulders, falling around him. As you watch, gloved fingers reach up to tug the hood over his head, hiding his blonde hair from view.
You've stopped your horse without realizing it, standing frozen in the middle of the street. Your mentor stops not too far away, turning to look at you with a wide smile. "Well, lad? Are you going to say hi or stand there gaping like a fish?"
Your eyes tear away from your friend to look at your mentor. "Can I?" You ask, a hopeful lift to your voice. You want nothing more than to run to your friend, but your duty as a squire keeps you at your knight's side.
He laughs. "I don't see why not. Go on, boy." You grin. You don't need to be told twice.
You dig your heels into your horses side and take off toward the trio. "Dirk!" You call out. You're not sure if he hears you or just your horse's hooves pounding the cobblestones. All three turn to look at you. The man pulls the woman behind him before his eyes go behind you, supposedly to your mentor, and he relaxes. Dirk is staring at you with wide startled eyes. His mouth hangs open. You laugh aloud.
You yank your horse to a stop at the last moment, despite the beast's protests. As quickly as you can, you've swung yourself off your saddle and onto the cobblestone road. You take a few running steps toward him, but you've been riding for most of the day and your legs feel weak. You end up stumbling toward him, unable to stop yourself before you crash into his chest. His arms go around you to catch you, but your momentum topples both of you over.
He lands on his ass on the lightly snow dusted road. You land on top of him, still laughing. Your arms wrap around his waist and you lay your head on his chest. He's sitting there, leaning back against one hand on the ground behind him, while the other arm is wrapped around your shoulders.
"Jake? What the hell?" He says after the initial shock wears off.
"Greetings, mate! Surprised you, didn't I?" You say, lifting your head to look up at him. His eyes are still wide, allowing you to see all of his amber irises. They stand out against the pale of his skin. His nose and cheeks are pink from the cold.
"Yeah, you could say that. What're you doing here?" He asks. You release him from your hug and sit up on our knees, between his legs. You grin at him.
"Our mentors live in the same city. I'll be here for a couple of weeks! Isn't that great?" You vaguely hear laughter behind you, and make the connection that it's your mentor. He's speaking with someone else, probably Dirk's knight, but you don't pay them any mind. Your attention is solely on your best friend, sitting in front of you and still colored in surprise.
His lips slowly curve upward in a small smile. It's that same tender smile that you've only ever seen directed at you and occasionally when he talks about his siblings. "Yeah, that's great."
You just sit there and stare at each other for a moment, smiling. You can't believe how grown he looks! You still remember the young teenage boy whom you first met. Now he's eighteen and looks more like a man than a boy. His face is developing sharper features and there's barely a trace of the soft curves of youth. A thin layer of blonde stubble dots his chin and jawline. You know if you stood up, he'd be nearly a head taller than you.
It doesn't take long for you to bore of silence. "Don't deny it, mate. You're just as excited as I am. If I weren't here, you'd mope around during the holidays and not once crack a smile." You say with a grin that has yet to fade.
He rolls his eyes and suddenly he's pulling you into a headlock, his other hand forming a fist as he rubs his knuckles into your hair. "Don't be so full of yourself, English." He says as you struggle to get away. Golly, when did he get so strong? You dig your feet into the cobblestone and push against him. You both end up sprawled out in the road, laughing like you haven't in months.
The next couple weeks go by far too fast, in your opinion. You're staying in one of your mentor's guest rooms, while Dirk stays with his. But both of your mentors have essentially given you the holidays off from squire duties. They both get up early and do some sort of training. Those kind of habits die hard, and a knight must always keep themselves physically fit. So you and Dirk join them. Your mentor likes to work in his own yard, while Dirk's likes to go on runs.
Your mentor is fond of wrestling, which is lucky for you, since you are too. He has four children, three of them sons, all under the age of nine. Sometimes you fill your free time playing with the young lads, teaching them new moves and chasing them around. Sometimes Dirk finds you like this when he comes to get you. He leans against the wall and watches with a small smirk on his lips before one of the boys drags him into your little game.
When you can both break away from the children, you usually explore the city. There's so much to see. He's fascinated by the ships and the harbor, even though he tries to hide it. You drag him around the docks, telling him about the different kinds of ships. You wish it was summer, then you'd be able to take him swimming. But if you jumped in the water now, you'd probably freeze near instantly.
On several evenings your mentors take you both to local taverns. You've never had a pint of ale before, but you find out quickly that it makes everything funnier. You're intrigued by the card games and checker games and dice games that are set up in several taverns. You always gamble away all your money, certain that you can get it the next time. When you're done, Dirk steps up and earns it all back for you. He's incredible. He watches while you lose and then learns from your mistakes. He's amazingly smart and quick witted. Yet he never makes you feel lesser because of it.
Somedays, if it's snowing hard and the wind is frigid, you go to one of your mentor's manors, wasting the day away in a sitting room, talking about everything you've missed in each other's lives. Even if you're doing nothing but talking, you like these times the best. Being warm and lazing around with your best friend, recalling the experiences you didn't get to share.
After the snow stops, you're usually pulled outside by either your mentor's children, or Dirk's. You both play with them in the fluffy new snow, throwing balls and making sculptures. You play with a wide smile and youthful enthusiasm. Dirk plays like an adult dealing with children. But that's okay too. Sometimes you end up just staring at him while he explains a game to them. You stare at his soft expression and gentle tone and wonder if this is how he is around his own siblings.
If he catches you staring, he throws a snowball at you. You then proceed to return fire. This usually leads to a wrestling match in the snow. You never know who'll win. You have skill, but he has strength and speed. These times come as a close second as your favorite. You enjoy wrestling with Dirk like you used to, before he grew up and left. It's comforting to know he's still the same person, no matter how much time you spend apart.
On Christmas, you each spend the day with your respective mentors and their families. Your knight gives you a new bow and his wife gives you brand new, fur lined tunics for your travels. You thank them both with full gratitidue. Dinner that night is more of a small feast. You gorge yourself on food until you can't possibly eat more, then retire to the main sitting room with the family to digest. The children play on the floor with their new toys while you chat with your mentor.
A servant comes not to long after to tell you that you have a visitor. You hop up and hurry to the waiting room near the door. You know it's Dirk before you even get there. The first thing he does when you step inside is thrust a wrapped package at you. You tell him to wait while you run upstairs to your room to retrieve his gift.
You got him a small, wooden puppet with the head of a horse and the body of a man. Honestly, you thought it was a little creepy, especially with it's glassy eyes that stare at everything and nothing. But you know Dirk has a love for puppets, so you hoped he'd like it. Turns out you were right. His eyes widen and excitement lights his face before he pushes it beneath his mask of indifference. He gives you a grumbled thanks but then pulls you into a tight hug, and you know you've done right.
He got you brand new archers gloves. They're fingerless and go three-fourths of the way up your forearm, to protect your skin from the snap of the string and the occasional wayward feather. They're made of a thick sturdy leather and died a rich brown. The inside is lined with soft linen for comfort. There are a couple straps to keep it tight and in place. He looks at you like he doesn't think they're enough, but you immediately put them on and flex your fingers. You grin at him and pull him into yet another hug, assuring him that you love them.
The next few days pass much like the others, with a few more archery practices thrown in so you can use your new gloves and bow. Before you know it, it's the day of the new year celebration. All day the town is in an flurry of excitement, decorating and preparing. Merchants set up stands along the main roads. Bakers prepare goods to sell to those hungry for sweets as the night goes on.
After dinner, you ready yourself in warm but fashionable clothes, provided by your mentor and his wife. They dress themselves in similar attire, along with their children. Together you all leave the house and head down the road.
You stop when you reach Dirk's knight's manor. You say your farewells to your own host family. Your mentor made it clear that you could spend your night however you wished. He hinted that you should go find a nice young lady to entertain, finishing that thought with a wink. To humor him, you said you might just do that. But you don't really mean it. Ladies are all fine and dandy, but it's not every year you get to welcome the new year with your best friend.
You just hope he feels the same.
You meet with him and the two of you make your way toward the heart of the city. It seems the entire population is out on the streets. Several times Dirk has to grab your sleeve or your back and pull you along with him, or out of the way of a nearing crowd. You decide to start the night off with a sweet snack and a drink.
You each by a sweet apple and cinnamon bun from a nearby bakery stand and a mug of honeyed ale from the closest tavern. You stand against the brick wall of a building, eating your snack and sipping the somewhat sweet drink. It sends warmth through your limbs. Somehow that gives you the courage to ask what's been on your mind.
"Say, Dirk, can I ask you something?" You start, a little hesitantly.
He swallows what he had been chewing. "Sure. Go for it." He takes another bite.
"I want you to know if you wanted to, you know, spend tonight with a young lady instead of me, I would understand." You say it slowly, waving your half-eaten bun around in a vague gesture.
He finishes chewing, swallows, then tilts his head to look at you. "That wasn't a question." He says.
You frown. "Well you know what I mean."
He raises one brow, looking at you mildly surprised. "Why? Would you rather spend the night with a young lady?"
Your eyes widen. "Heavens, no!" You push off the wall and turn to face him, raising both hands up in defense. "I am perfectly fine spending this evening with my best bro. I just didn't want you to feel obligated to do the same."
He chuckles, shaking his head. "Calm down, English. I'd rather spend the evening with you than some flighty broad."
You can't help but smile at that. "Then by all means, let the festivities begin!"
The festivities continue late into the night. They consist mostly of the two of you wandering around the city, watching the entertainment, gambling, and drinking. You both drink a lot. More than you've ever drank before. Every time you come across a stand advertising some kind of wine, or mead, or ale, you decide to try it.
There are many different entertainment acts set up around the city. There're dancers, sword swallowers, fire breathers, and much more. The more you drink, the louder your laughter is, often earning you several frustrated looks from those around you. Dirk just puts an arm around your shoulder, smiling wider than you're used to and sometimes chuckling along with you.
The more you drink, the worse at gambling you become. Which is hard to believe, since you're pretty terrible to begin with. But if anything, Dirk gets better. The only difference is when he swindles the dealer out of his money, he laughs. He throws his head back and actually laughs. The sound is foreign to you but it makes you smile. You'll have to get him drunk more often.
There's the barest line of light on the horizon by the time you both decide it's time to go sleep. Which turns out to be a lot harder than it seems. You're both stumbling on your own feet. His arm is around your shoulders and yours is around his waist as you try to hold each other up. Every time one of you trips and you barely catch yourself from falling, you both laugh. You've never seen Dirk so loose and open with his emotions before. The mask he usually wears is completely gone, giving you a glimpse into everything he usually hides. Like his laugh. You really like his laugh.
You look around, trying to figure out which direction to go. The streets are emptying rapidly as people head home. Nothing looks familiar. The world around you is blurry and unfocused. All detail seems to blur into the next and you're unable to grasp any one thing.
"Goodness, Dirk, I think we're lost." You say, your words slurring together as your tongue refuses to articulate.
"Yeah, me too." He says, looking around with a frown on his face.
You giggle, even though the situation doesn't warrant it. "What should we do?"
"Donno." He looks over his shoulder and then suddenly he's spinning you around and dragging you off in some direction.
"Where're we going?" You ask, stumbling along. He removes his arm from your shoulder in order to wrap your wrist, tugging you toward a building. You can't quite read the sign.
"Gonna get a room at an inn. We'll go back in the mornin'." He says and you just nod your head, not caring that he doesn't see.
He seems in more control than you are, so you let him talk to the inn keeper. You try to pay attention to their exchange, but your mind and eyes wander. You look around the room, not really noticing anything in particular. Suddenly Dirk's tugging at your arm again, pulling you toward the staircase in the corner. He's got a key in his hand.
At the top of the stairs is a hallway of doors. He stops at one and fumbles with the key and the lock. You lean your shoulder against the wood, then your head. You look at him, focusing on his face. Have his eyelashes always been that long?
Something above you catches your eye and you tilt your head back to get a better look. A smile slowly curves your lips. "Diiiiirk." You say, practically singing his name. He finally gets the key in the lock and turns to look at you, one eyebrow raised.
"What?" He asks slowly, obviously suspicious.
You lift a hand and point upward, to the small bundle of leaves tied with a red ribbon that's hanging above your door frame. You notice they're above all the doors. He looks up at it, then his eyes slide slowly back to yours. "Mistletoe?" He says, an odd note in his voice.
You nod, practically rubbing your head against the door as you do so. "Yup. You know the rules, Dirk." You say, grinning.
He unlocks the door and removes the key, slipping it into his pocket. He then takes a step so he's in front of you. You turn so your back is flat against the door. One of his hands rests on the door beside your head, the other hand rests on your hip. You have to tilt your head back to look up at him. He leans down and suddenly his face is close. All you can see is his face. There's a look in his amber eyes that makes you shiver and a smirk playing across his lips.
"Gonna kiss me, English?" He says and his breath ghosts across your lips. You try to debate your next action, but your mind is a foggy mess. All you an think about is the fact that Dirk is so close and you can't back down from this now. He's given you a challenge, and you will call his bluff!
You're gripped with a firm determination and your hands lift to wrap around his neck, pulling him forward roughly. His nose bumps into yours and your teeth clack together painfully, but soon after that you're lips are on his and nothing else matters.
You've never kissed anyone before. You move your lips sloppily over his, too drunk to care and just eager to feel more. You weren't aware how still he was being until he starts to move. Suddenly he's leaning into you, pressing you against the door. He tilts his head to the side and now you can feel more of his lips. Your arms around him tighten and his hand slips around your waist, pulling you further into him.
His tongue moves across your lips and you gasp. He takes this as an opportunity to slip his tongue further into your mouth, exploring everywhere it can reach. A low moan escapes your throat without meaning too. Soon you're responding in kind. You're not sure what you're doing and you're too drunk to process any of it. You're just doing whatever feels good. And damn if Dirk's lips don't feel good.
When he breaks the kiss and steps away, he's breathing heavily. You are too. Your head is spinning. You lift a hand to wipe away the drool on your chin and he does the same. You stare at each other for a moment before you start laughing. "I didn't think you'd actually do it, Strider!" You say, patting his shoulder. "You sure got me. I should know better than to challenge you!"
He gives you a small smile. There's a strange look in his eyes that you don't quite understand. "Damn right."
You laugh again and turn to grab the doorknob, opening the door and stumbling into the small room. Dirk's behind you closing the door. You go to the one bed and struggle to remove your shoes. You throw off the heaviest of your outer winter layers and crawl under the covers, scooting close to the wall so Dirk has room. It doesn't take long for you to feel the mattress dip as he joins you.
A moment later you feel arms wrap around your waist and you're pulled against his chest. "Dirk, what're-"
"Shut it, English. It's cold." He says, burrowing his face in your hair. You can feel his breath against your neck. After a moment of uncertainty, you decide there's nothing wrong with sharing some warmth. You close your eyes and welcome the darkness as it drags you into unconsciousness.
==> Be Dirk Strider
Your name is Dirk Strider and you think you're falling in love with your clueless and oblivious best friend.
Chapter 4: Burdens
In which we're finally introduced to Jane and Roxy.
==> Be Dirk Strider
You are twenty-three and you're still in love with your best friend.
You don't think there's any other way to explain it. Your eyes follow him wherever he goes. Your orange gaze drinks up everything about him, every smile, every twitch, every movement. Every time you receive one of his letters, your heart skips a beat. His written words make you smile and his voice spreads warmth through your chest. His smile erases everything else from existence, leaving only you and him.
Ever since that first and only kiss five years ago, you've been hooked. You're not stupid. You know what love is and you know you're feeling it. You also know that you are trapped and doomed for heartbreak.
The stories people tell of love never truly explain what it is. It's not a happily ever after and it's not a world full of butterflies and rainbows. Love is being the happiest you've ever been when you're with someone, and then feeling as if you're ripped in half when they're gone. Love is feeling lighter than air when they smile at you, and then feeling like you've been kicked in the lungs when they smile that way at someone else. Love is holding each other and sharing happiness. Love can be lovely, but only if it's mutual.
You're stuck in a one-sided love.
Love for you is being close to him and unable to touch. It's knowing you're the closest person to him, yet someday someone else will surpass you. It's the bittersweet feeling you get when he smiles at you. It's knowing that no matter how happy he is to see you and how much he misses you, he'll never see you as you see him. It's knowing that he's so close, and yet so far out of your reach. It's knowing he's right there, and you can never touch him. It's knowing that if he ever found out, you'd never be allowed near him again.
It's knowing he thinks the world of you, but you'll never be his world.
What they never tell you in story books is that love is pain.
It's the truest and most real form of pain imaginable.
It's the kind of pain where your mind plagues you and your insides wither. Then just a simple smile and you're alive again, only to be crushed all over again. And all throughout this pain, all this torture, and all this suffering, your body is physically still functioning. You're alive and forced to live, when all you feel like doing is dying.
And yet you can't stop. Love is addictive, not matter how unhealthy it is. Love has burrowed deep within your chest and refuses to leave. It's hurting you and healing you in an endless cycle.
Love is living through pain.
Love is suffering.
You are learning to live with love.
You are completely and irreversibly in love with your best friend. He's the only one who knows you. He's the only one who can get past your mask. He's the only one who cares about you enough to put up with your shit. He's always been there for you. He knows all your weaknesses and he always pulls you up. He's everything you could ever hope for and you've never felt this way about anyone else. You doubt you ever will.
You think you're a masochist.
After you were knighted, Jake picked up the habit of sending you letters. He came back often, and he always spent a good portion of his time with you. His letters never once mentioned women he was interested in. And you know you monopolized his time in the castle. At least for those first two years. Then you retired to your home castle and picked up lordly responsibilities.
Jake still sent you letters, but you saw him less. You did your best to return to the castle for festivals, just to see him. You didn't tell him that, of course. But you think he knew.
Despite seeing him less, you still don't think he's found a girl he's interested in. A year ago you received a letter about how his mother had tried to hook him up with one of his sister's friends. A young noble woman. He said she was nice, but he didn't like her in way that was more than friendly. You're relieved. You know it doesn't mean he'll go for you. In fact, you know he won't. It just means it'll be a little longer before your heart breaks once and for all.
A week ago you received a letter from Jake, telling you he would be knighted soon. You made arrangements to go to the castle immediately. There you waited for him. When he arrived, he wrapped you up in a tight, enthusiastic hug. He nearly crushed your ribs. You're surprised by how much he's grown. He's now just as tall as you, maybe an inch or so taller. His hair and eyes are the same, but his skin in sun-kissed and his muscles are toned. His build is bigger than yours now. You're hopelessly attracted to him.
His knighting ceremony went off without a hitch. A celebration feast and informal ball was to be held that night to celebrate the knighting of the king's nephew. That's where you are now.
He's currently talking very animatedly with a group of older knights. You're standing off to the side, across the room, leaning against a wall. You watch the way his arms flail around while he talks. It's a habit he's had as long as you've known him. As a child, it was awkward and amusing, with his skinny, gangly arms. Now it's charming and endearing, not to mention you can see the muscles of his arms move. You can't see his face, but you know he's probably smiling. When he laughs, the sound carries across the room to you and makes your lips twitch in response.
"Wine for your thoughts?"
You tear your gaze from Jake to the woman standing next to you. You wonder how long she's been there. She's young and pretty, with fair blonde hair that falls to her shoulders. Her eyes are bright and the color of magenta. Laugh lines crinkle the corners of her eyes. Her nose is small and delicate, her skin pale and flawless. Her lips are full and the corners are upturned in a knowing smirk. She's dressed in a simple, yet elegant dress in soft shades of pink. Despite the simple design, it shows off all of her curves.
She's holding two goblets of wine, one of which is held out towards you.
You raise an eyebrow. "Do I know you?"
Her smile widens slightly. "No, but I know you." She taps the goblet against your chest. "You're Jake's best friend. The infamamus…inframis…infamous Dirk Strider." She makes a face, twisting her lips into a frown and wrinkling her nose, as she struggles to find the right word. You realize she might be a little intoxicated.
The goblet is still tapping your chest and you take it from her before it can spill on your clothes. "And you are?"
She smiles once again. "Roxy. Roxy Londay." He holds out her now-free hand, her fingers hanging limp.
Out of chivalrous habit, you take her hand in yours, bow, and kiss the back of it. After you do so, it finally hits you. You slowly straighten, not releasing her hand yet. "Roxy? As in…?"
She chuckles, her eyes lighting up. "As in dear Janey's childhood friend and for like a minute possible, almost fiancé to a mister Jake English."
You slowly drop her hand, your own going to cross over your chest. Your face remains impassive, but your insides are a mess. You're not sure what to do. You're used to young women approaching you and trying to flirt. They always get tired of your cold indifference eventually. But this is the woman who nearly had a chance at Jake, and you're not sure what to think.
So instead you lean back against the wall and your eyes return to Jake, as if seeking help. His back is still turned to you. You're not sure what you want from him. You don't want him to come over and possibly rekindle a failed-before-it-started relationship, but you also don't want to be alone with her.
You idly raise the goblet to your lips and take a sip of the wine.
"He's got a nice ass, doesn't he?"
You sputter, nearly chocking on your wine. You hold your free hand to your mouth, coughs wracking your chest. She steps closer and pats you roughly on the back. Finally the coughing fit stops, and you clear your throat. You stare down at her, trying to regain your calm indifference, but your eyes are wide with horror and you're pretty sure you're gaping at her. A blush almost rises to your cheeks. Almost. Striders don't blush.
She smiles with a knowing upturn of her lips and rolls her eyes. "Please, Strider. I see the way you look at him." Both of her hands hold her goblet in front of her and she nudges your arm with her shoulder. She leans against the wall next to you, her eyes finding Jake in the crowd. You're still staring at her and you can see when her face softens. "We're in the same boot…boat," her nose wrinkles again in frustration as she pronounces the word again, slower.
"Are we?" You look back to Jake. Music has started up and he's been pulled into a dance with a frumpy young woman. His smile never falters for a moment as he whisks her across the dance floor.
"Wanting to get a little frisky with a certain handsome gent and being shot down so you're left to entertain fleeting fantasies about said hangsome… hansome….whatever, you get my point."
A sad smile curves your lips as the rest of your face falls behind your mask. "At least you're a woman."
She gives a very unladylike snort and rolls her magenta eyes. "Not to him I'm not. I might as well be boobless and have scales down in my neather…nother…shit fuck, my nether regions." She surprises a chuckle out of you and she smiles. "At least you're his best friend. That's something." She nudges you again.
"Not that it helps."
"Hmm…" She sips her wine thoughtfully.
"Yeah, I suppose we are in the same metaphorical boat."
She raises her goblet with one hand. You're certain some of the wine would slosh out, if it wasn't for the fact that it's nearly empty. "To the S.S. We-Can't-Get-Laid! All aboard!"
You chuckle, raising your own goblet to tap against hers.
You pass the evening talking to Roxy, and you can't say you're disappointed. In fact, you're enjoying her company more than you thought you would. Her smiles are infectious. Her snarky comments drag you out from behind your indifferent expression. She nudges you and pokes at you, both verbally and physically. Every time she stumbles over a word, her nose wrinkles. She's nothing like any of the other women you know.
You're normally a man of few words, except when you're around those you're close to. But Roxy is quickly drawing you out of your shell, with her loud but light drunken laugh and soft punches to the arm when you say something that should be offensive. But she never takes offense. You admire how openly she'll state what's on her mind, without a care what others think.
She's four years younger than you. You find out she's smart. Really smart. Self-educated more than a woman should be. She has strong opinions. She loves cats. She's loyal to her friends. She likes to drink. And she likes to flirt. Unfortunately she hasn't been able to find a man willing to put up with her. She tells you tale after tale of young men she's drawn in with her looks, but scared away with her personality. But she refuses to change just to get married. She wants to be herself and find a man to appreciate it.
You end up telling her a lot about yourself. You tell her about your family situation, how you're responsible for all of them. You tell her about being a knight. But mostly you tell her about Jake. You tell her how you met, how he became your best friend, and even about the kiss you shared one night under a mistletoe. She listens with an understanding and sympathetic smile on her lips.
You find out she's been friends with Jane and Jake since they were small, being a noble living in her fief. She liked Jake when they were kids, but he was frequently gone for training. When he returned home once for yule time when he was nineteen, his mother proposed a marriage. Jake didn't hesitate before saying no. He only saw her as a sister.
Though she may not feel the exact pain you do, being hopelessly in love with your best friend. She does feel the pain of love. More specifically, she wants it but can't find it. Men reject her quickly and she's convinced she'll never find love. She's not like you. She's not stuck. You tell her that.
"But I am stuck! I'm stuck in a pit of my own stubbornness." She draws out the last word in a long slur. She downs the rest of her wine and glances over at your cup. "You gonna fisinesh, fuck, finish that?"
"Go for it." You say, handing her your cup. She takes it gratefully. You watch her for a moment. "I'm sure you'll find someone, someday." You say, trying to sound reassuring.
Her face falls for a moment, revealing a sadness you've been catching glimpses of. She's much like you. You hide your emotions behind an expressionless mask. She hides hers behind smiles and energy. It makes your heart ache. She shouldn't be so down. She has a chance.
You wish you weren't stuck in your painful love. You wish you could sweep Roxy off her feet. Both of you would be happy. You'd both have someone you're comfortable around. You already enjoy her company. You could take her back to your home and start a family with her. But you can't. Your heart is filled with Jake and there's no room for anyone else. You wish you could give up on him, but you can't.
Hope is all you have, and your heart clings to it.
"That's all fine and dandy, Dirk, but we both know it ain't gonna happen." Her voice, though she's trying to hide it, has an edge of a sorrow that echoes your own.
"Let's make a deal." You say, suddenly struck with an idea. She looks at you curiously, one delicate eyebrow raised. You meet her gaze steadily. "If you can't find anyone by the time you're old, and I've become a miserable, bitter man because the man I love won't love me back, we'll get married."
She stares at you for a moment and you stare back. Slowly her eyes begin to crinkle and a wide smile curves her lips. "Why, mister Strider, are you proposing to me?"
You feel your own lips curve in response. "If the previously stated requirements are met by that time frame, then yes, I propose to you."
"Sooo a situationally determined future proposal?"
"A situationally determined future proposal."
She turns so her whole body is facing you and sticks out her hand. "You've got yourself a deal, Dirk."
You take her hand and you shake on it, a smile reflecting on your face. You're not sure if you're serious, or if it'll ever come to that, but it cheers you both up nonetheless. You know Roxy will find someone eventually, but it doesn't hurt to have a back up plan.
You glance out into the crowd. Jake's still dancing. He's been doing so with several young women. He never turns down a dance. Despite this being his celebration, you've spent most of the night with Roxy. You don't mind. Otherwise you would have spent it alone, watching and pining after him, wishing you could have been born a woman so you could dance with him.
Besides, you've just made yourself a new friend.
Your name is Dirk Strider and you're still head over heels in love with your best friend, but at least you don't have to bear this burden alone.
==> Be Jake English
You are twenty, newly knighted, and by golly your feet hurt!
You've been dancing for what feels like hours. The line of young ladies seeking a dance with you never seems to end! At one point you look for Dirk, trying to seek refuge, but he's busy talking with a young lady. You're surprised to see it's Roxy.
After you finish a dance, you're about to go over to them, but something stops you. Dirk smiles. It's small, but definitely a smile. You haven't seen him smile for anyone other than you and his family. Smirk, yes, but never smile. It pulls you up short. They seem to be in their own little world of conversation. You've never seen Dirk talk with someone for so long. You feel…a little strange. A weird sinking feeling settles in your stomach, making you feel heavy. For once you feel like an outsider.
In the end another lady sweeps you into a dance and you decide not to disturb your friend. When the dance ends, you quickly step away. You're about to slip away from the dance floor when you feel a tap on your shoulder. Inwardly you sigh. Outwardly you put on a smile and turn to see your next partner.
You're pleasantly surprised to see your sister.
"Jane! I didn't think you would make it!" You say, a genuine grin spreading your lips. You throw your arms wide and gather her into a hug.
She giggles, squeezing you back. "I wouldn't miss it for the world." You step back, holding her by the shoulders as you look her up and down. She looks lovely. Her dress has a tight waist and a flowing skirt. The varying shades of pale blue set off her eyes. Her hair is short. Usually your mother made her keep it long, saying it was more lady-like. But in her last letter to you she said a kitchen incident had set the long train on fire. They got it out before it hurt her, but her hair was damaged and had to be cut. Now it was in an extremely short style, with the dark waves framing her delicate features.
"Your hair is quite fetching." You say and she gives you a shy smile, lifting a hand to touch the dark locks.
"Thanks." She says. "Mother hates it, but I'm rather fond of it."
You make a face and roll your eyes. "Phooey, mother doesn't know didily squat! Forget about her. You are certainly old enough to make your own decisions." She looks startled at first, like she always does when you speak ill of your mother, but then she laughs. The sound is like a low chuckle, almost like she was saying "hoo hoo." She has the most adorable laugh.
"Oh how I missed you, Jake!" She says. "It's plum boring without you."
"Surely there's some excitement in learning to be a proper young lady?" You say teasingly.
She levels a look at you, but the corners of her lips are still upturned. "You know very well there's not."
"Is she at least still allowing you to bake?"
"Yes, if only because the king enjoys my sweets far too much." Her smile is downright goofy and you know yours is reflecting hers near perfectly.
"Well that's jolly good!" The music starts up again and you take your sisters hands in yours. "Care for a dance, milady?" You ask, bowing dramatically like a gentleman.
She giggles and curtsies. "Of course, good sir."
You sweep your sister onto the dance floor. You've never been particularly good at dancing. When Dirk dances, he's all precision and grace. When you dance, it's sloppy and everywhere. You often forget the dance moves you learned, so you're left to improvise. You don't mind. It makes things fun! So you swing Jane around with however the music moves you. She laughs and you laugh. You do love your sister.
She's two years younger than you and you've both been the best of friends for as long as you can remember. Your father died when you were young, and you don't remember much of him. Your mother is very overbearing and damn near insufferable. As a boy, you were able to leave home for page training, then squire training, and now as a knight, you can live at the castle. Poor Jane doesn't have it so easy.
After you left, she was put through ten years of lady training. Your mother was determined to whip her into the finest young noblewoman the kingdom has ever seen. You don't think it's necessary. Jane is already the sweetest girl you've ever met. She's kind and a little shy. She's cautious and doesn't throw caution to the wind like you do. But it just adds to her charm.
And that's not even getting into her skill at baking! Your mother is unhappy with the hobby, claiming the kitchen is for the servants, but it's the only way Jane will willingly cooperate with her lady lessons. So she was given a kitchen of her own, fully stocked with the finest ingredients money could by. All a man has to do is take a bite of her cakes and he will be willing to marry her on the spot. Unfortunately they have to be of pretty high noble birth to satisfy your mother. The niece of the king deserves the best, after all.
"So how have you been, Jake?" She asks as you swing her around, one hand at her waist and the other holding hers. She rests one lightly on your shoulder.
"Fine and dandy, dear sister." You say, a smile on your lips as you release her into a spin before pulling her back. She giggles.
"Are you still going to apply for ambassador, now that you're a knight?"
"To travel the kingdom and go on more adventures than I could ever dream? Gracious, why wouldn't I?" The song ends and a new one picks up. The new one is slower, but you and Jane pay it little mind. You're dancing on the edge of the crowd, out of the way of the other dancers, content to do your own thing.
She gives you smile, no doubt at your undying enthusiasm on the subject, but then it morphs into something different. Her bottom lip moves sideways and her front teeth bite down on the corner of her mouth. It causes her bottom lip to pout slightly. That mixed with the concern in her eyes makes her absolutely adorable. You can only imagine how many suitors your mother is having to chase away.
"What is it?" You ask. Clearly she has something on your mind.
"I was just wondering…"
"Yes?" You prompt. She sighs before speaking.
"What are you going to do about a wife, Jake? You know mother will want you to marry and give her grandchildren. I'll be darned if you leave me alone with her for another ten years." She gives you a half-hearted glare.
"I'm not looking to marry yet, Jane." Your smile is small and you shake your head. "I want to travel, and that simply wouldn't be gentlemanly of me to leave my lady fair alone. Besides, I doubt any lady would be willing to wait for me to be ready to settle down."
Jane's head ducks down and she's giving you this sheepish look from under her lashes. "Roxy is." She says softly, so softly you almost don't hear.
"I know." Your smile is apologetic. "And Roxy is a fine young lady, but she is simply not my cup of tea."
Jane sighs and shakes her head. "What exactly is your cup of tea, Jake?"
You cock your head to the side, looking at her thoughtfully. "I don't rightly know." Your dance has turned to more of a shuffling of feet as you sway side to side. You've seen plenty of women over the years, and you've appreciated their beauty, but none of them struck any sort of deeper feelings in you. "I suppose I'll find out someday. But for now no one seems to strike my fancy."
Jane's looking at your worriedly again. "I don't want you to be alone, Jake."
You shake your head and smile brightly to reassure her. "I won't be. Don't worry. Even if I don't have a lady fair, I have you and I have Roxy and I have Dirk." You suddenly dip her, leaning over as her head nearly touches the floor. "What more could a man need besides his sister, his childhood friend, and his best bro?"
She raises her eyebrows and a small smile curves her lips. She's looking at you like you're a child who doesn't understand a thing. "How about love?"
You roll your eyes and pull her back up. "Phooey!"
What is love anyway? You love your sister. You always have. You were always all each other had under the tyranny of your mother. You love your cousins, John and Jade. You love Roxy. She's a fearless woman with all the charms a lady could possess. But she is as much of a sister to you as Jane is. And then you have Dirk. You certainly care for him. More than most people. You enjoy his company a lot. You suppose there is a level of love there. A love for your best bro. Yes, you love Dirk, too.
You can't imagine needing to love anyone else. You can't imagine needing to spend your time with anyone else when you're so content already. Perhaps when you're older you'll be ready to settle down and marry a lovely woman. But for now you are perfectly fine with how things are.
"Let's stop this useless blather. Let's dance!" You tug Jane back to the heart of the dance floor. You sweep her around for several more dances, throwing each other around and spinning until you're dizzy. The other dancers learn to keep a good distance from you both. Jane seemed determined to keep a stern expression, but it isn't long before she was smiling and laughing along with you.
At one point you maneuver your dance steps so you're close to where Dirk and Roxy are standing. You drop Jane into another dramatic dip in front of them. Jane giggles and you hold the pose while you both look up at them.
Both of them are staring at you two, but your eyes are on Dirk. "Fancy a night ride after this dance?" You say, smiling cheerfully. You haven't spent much time with him this evening and you wouldn't mind getting away to have some simple alone time.
Both of his eyebrows go up and his amber eyes sparkle with amusement. "A ride underneath the stars? How could I refuse something so romantic?"
You laugh loudly, nearly dropping Jane. You pull her back up and look over your shoulder. "Meet me at the stables." You give him a wide grin and you see the corners of his lips curve upward in response. His amber-orange eyes soften in a way that you know is strictly for you, and no one else. He gives you a mock salute and you laugh again, spinning away with Jane.
No, you definitely don't need anyone else in your life. Between Jane, Roxy, and Dirk, you'll never be lonely.
Especially if Dirk continues to smile for you.
Chapter 5: Hunting
==> Be Jake English
It's been two years since you were knighted and you're finally going on a long overdue hunting trip with your best bro.
You were so excited you barely slept the night before. You had arrived at the Strider estate yesterday and stayed the night in one of their many guest rooms. You both left early this morning, before the sun even had a chance to rise. Packed up your horses with everything you might need and headed out into the wilderness.
You let him lead the way. After all, he knows these parts far better than you do. But you're not far behind him. He rides fast, and you can't help but think he might be doing it because he can sense your excitement. Maybe you're feeding his own. You look over at him. He's wearing casual garb in the colors of his family: red and gold. It suits him brilliantly, you think. His hair is being blown back by the wind and he's bent low over his horse's neck.
You're mirroring his pose and you can feel the wind whipping your own hair into a mess. He glances over at you and you see the excitement in his amber eyes. He's been looking forward to this as much as you have, even if he won't admit it aloud. You grin and you think you catch sight of a smirk before he faces forward again.
You're both deep into the woods when you stop for lunch. You stop near a stream to allow your horses to drink while you both lounge with your backs pressed against a tree. You munch on slices of freshly baked bread, cheeses, and slivers of dried meat. You tell him all about your most recent travels, the ones you hadn't put into a letter yet. He mostly listens, but occasionally tells you about the happenings on his own fief and his family.
You shift against the tree, the rough bark biting into your back. You've never been one for sitting through something uncomfortable. You glance over at Dirk and my, does his lap look open and inviting. You wrap up the rest of your food and tuck it away into your pack. You're full enough for now. You turn sideways, so your back is to him, and then lay back. Your head comes to rest on his thighs and you sigh contently.
"Now this is much better." You say, looking up at him with a grin on your lips. "Hope you don't mind, old chap."
He looks down at you, one blonde brow raised and a small smirk playing on the corners of his lips. "Even if I did, would you move?"
You pretend to think it over, tapping your chin with one finger and doing your best to look thoughtful. "Nope, I don't suppose I would." You say, a smile returning to your lips. Your hands settling on your stomach. "Your lap is far too comfortable for me to give it up, mate." You rock your head back and forth, illustrating the fact that you don't plan on moving. From the look of that smirk, you doubt he's going to ask you to.
He wraps up his food and puts it away without saying anything. Then he rests one hand at his side and the other is on his lap, his fingers running through your hair. You close your eyes and hum your appreciation. He truly has wonderful hands.
"So tell me about Rose. How old is she now?" You say, eager to hear him speak. You rarely get the chance to talk with him in person anymore, and you feel like you've been dominating the conversation.
"Fourteen." His fingers have picked up a rhythm, stroking through your hair and scratching at your scalp. It's incredibly soothing. "She's brighter than most people twice her age. I swear she's read every book in our library more than once. Every few months she takes trips to go get more books. It's like a fucking book jungle in there. Between my father's old books, the Lalonde's old books, and Rose's constant additions, I can't go anywhere without tripping on something. I avoid the fuck outta that place."
A small smile plays across your lips as you listen to him speak. He has a very nice voice. You've always liked listening to him talk, especially once you realized he rarely does it and you're one of the few who hear more than a sentence at a time. Ever since he hit puberty, his voice has lowered into an unbelievably smooth baritone. His letters are wonderful and you're extremely delighted that he keeps them up, but they don't compare to his voice. You could listen to him talk all day.
"And she's started leaving books all over the place. I got her back though. I started leaving puppets everywhere. Set them up so they would fall on her when she opened doors, set them behind her when she wasn't looking. Gotta hand it to her though, she doesn't flip shit like Dave does. She just tosses them away with this look on her face like she's thinking about how to get back at me. She's crafty. I like the challenge."
Though he tries to sound as bored and indifferent as he can, you can hear the fondness in his voice. You crack your eyes open to look up at him. He's staring off in the direction of the horses, but there's a small smile playing across his lips. "You have strange relationships with your siblings." You say, laughing a little.
He shrugs, the corners of his lips turning up a little bit more.
Your own dynamic with your sister is different. You've always been close and the best of friends. You shared everything, played nicely, and spent every day together. The Striders and Lalonde's are different. They're all nearly expressionless, but they all understand each other. They don't often share feeling aloud because they know without asking. They poke at each other and fight with each other, but they're the only ones allowed to do so. You pity anyone foolish enough to mess with one of them, because it would enlist the fury of them all.
They're strange, yes, but you admire the way Dirk has raised his younger siblings. The adorable way his face softens when he speaks of them. The way he's adopted the role of both brother and father.
You lift a hand to lightly slap at his chest. "It's alright to admit you love them, old chap. No one around but me, and a best bro always keeps secrets."
He shrugs again. "They keep me entertained."
You snort and roll your eyes before closing them, your hand settling back on your chest. His fingers are still moving through your hair, never once stopping. "So how's Dave? Won't he be a squire soon?"
"He turns fifteen in a few months." He says after a pause. His voice is softer than before. You open your eyes again to see his small smile is gone. He's not looking at you, but you can see the slight tension around his eyes. Anyone else would think he sounded bored. You, on the other hand, can see what he's not saying.
"I'm sure he'll make a fine squire." You say reassuringly. He doesn't say anything, but his fingers have stilled in your hair. You sit up and immediately scoot closer to him. "He's grown into a stand-up young fellow." You nudge him in the side with your elbow. "Takes after you, you know." You say, giving him a wide grin.
He snorts a small laugh and lightly shoves you back. "Shouldn't we be hunting or something?"
You know it's a change of subject, but you'll let him have it, if only for now. "Right-o! That's the spirit, Strider!" You leap to your feet and hold out a hand to him. He takes it and you haul him to his feet. You're an inch or so taller than him now, and built wider. Not that you'd ever underestimate him. He's chiseled and lean and built for speed over power. "Talley-hoe, Strider, good pal. The hunt is a-foot!"
You grab your pack and trot over to the horses. He follows slower, quietly laughing. Warmth spreads through your chest knowing you're one of the few who can make him do that.
==> Be Dirk Strider
You are twenty-five and you love watching Jake hunt.
He's staring down the length of an arrow. It's only pulled back half-way as he sets his sights and waits for the right opening. He's sitting upright on his horse, his back straight. You can see the muscles in his shoulders and his back move. You see the relaxed tension in his arms as he holds the bow in place. The look of calm concentration on his features. The blaze of excitement in his emerald eyes.
If you weren't already head over heels, you would fall all over again.
Because you're watching him so closely, you see the moment the decision is made. His eyes flash. His hand pulls. The arrow flies. It sinks into the throat of a deer he'd been spying on through the trees. The wounded animal staggers and stumbles deeper into the forest. You both know it won't get far.
Jake throws both hands into the air with a shout. "Gadzooks! Strider, did you see that shot?" He twists in his saddle to look at you. You let the corners of your lips tilt upward.
"Sorry, bro, I missed it." You say casually. He frowns at you and you find yourself focusing on the way his nose wrinkles.
"Hogswallop! You saw it and you know it!" He accuses, slinging his bow over his shoulder.
"Yeah, you caught me. How could I possibly look away from someone as gorgeous as you?"
He throws his head back and laughs that full-bellied laugh of his. The one where his eyes crinkle and his hair goes flying. The one that echoes no matter where he is. A few birds take off from their nearby perches at the sudden outburst. Even his horse snorts in protest.
"Dear me, Strider." He says when he's finally calmed down. "You sure are a hoot to have around. I sure have missed you!" From the way he's grinning ear-to-ear, you know he means it.
You know he will never take your compliments seriously. You're okay with that. Or at least you're learning to be okay with it. Despite all that, you smile back. "Yeah, same."
"Well what're we doing here wasting daylight? That beast should have surely bled out by now. Onward!" He dramatically throws a fist forward and kicks his horse into a fast trot. You follow behind him, basking in his adorable enthusiasm.
You both weave through the trees, following the blood trail the deer left. You don't have to go far. You find the animal dead on the ground. Jake hops off his horse, dagger in hand, and extracts the arrow from its neck. "Clean shot, wouldn't you say?" He says, glancing over his shoulder while he cleans the arrow off on the grass.
You nod, still in your saddle. "As always."
He rolls his eyes, but grins. "You flatter me."
Jake has always been good with a bow. His accuracy, speed, and strength is unmatched. He was always fairly good with a spear, and decent with a sword, but his weapon has always been and will always be the bow. Going for the throat of a deer at that distance was a risky shot that few could make. Jake never once hesitated to aim there. Saved the rest of the meat, he once claimed.
He put the arrow in his quiver and walked back to his horse. "Blow the horn, won't you?"
You nod and reach for the hollowed horn strapped to your bag. You take a deep breath, press it to your lips, and blow. It doesn't produce a pretty noise. Not by any means. Especially when you're the one to do it. But it's loud and distinctive, which is what it needs to be. The horn calls your servants whose job it is to retrieve your prey. You told them to stay back until called, giving you and Jake your privacy. They're instructed to make camp at nightfall, away from your own camp.
You hold the note as long as you can and by the time it fades to nothing, Jake is laughing. You look at him, frowning slightly. "What're you laughing at?" You say lowering the horn from your lips.
His arms are wrapped around his stomach as he nearly doubles over with laughter. "Goodness, Dirk! You make that horn sound like dying cattle!" He says between snorts of laughter.
You roll your eyes and scoff. "You can do better?"
"Of course! Give it here." He holds out his hands and you toss it to him. He catches it and licks his lips. You stare at his tongue. When he blows, the sound produced actually sounds like a solid note. Way better than what you did.
You smirk, you really can't help it. "You sure are good at blowing, English." You say when he's done. He straps the horn to his bag, showing no sign that he understood your innuendo.
"You just need practice, mate." He says, turning back to you with a smug smile on his lips.
"Let's practice sometime."
"Well we'll certainly have time to practice on this trip."
"All night long?"
"Well that doesn't seem like the best time to practice."
"Under the stars, alone at night? I don't know what could be better."
His smile falters. "It would confuse the servants."
"They don't have to know. It'll be just between us."
"They would certainly hear us."
"Damn, English. Never pegged you for a screamer."
His brow furrows and his frown deepens. Confusion and uncertainty color his face. "We're not talking about the horn anymore…are we?"
You shrug, your smirk still firmly in place. "Sure we are. Your horn and mine."
He steps forward and lightly punches your thigh. "Strider!" He does his best to look offended and chastising. It's just far too adorable. You can't help it. You laugh. Your carefully controlled expression breaks as laughs bubble up your throat. It's not loud and obnoxious like Jake's, but it's definitely not quiet.
"It's just too easy, English." You say as your laughter dies down into chuckles. He can't stay mad at you, or even fake mad. He ends up smiling as he turns around and walks back to his own horse. He pulls himself into the saddle. Your eyes linger on his arms.
"So how long do you think it'll take them to get here?" He asks, turning his horse around to face you. Your eyes snap up to his.
"Depends on how far away they are."
"Hmmm." He hums, looking around. He's always been impatient, but you know he'd rather wait than risk losing his kill. He pulls his bow over his shoulder and back into his hands, pulling an arrow from his quiver. He docks the arrow and let's it rest in his lap. His eyes are alert and eyeing your surroundings. You know he's keeping an eye out for unwanted predators.
You wait in comfortable silence. It's not long before your servants show up. Jake puts his arrow away and shoulders his bow. "Keep it good and clean, lads. I'm counting on you." He says, already kicking his horse in the direction you both had originally been headed. "Strider?" He looks at you over his shoulder, but you're already pulling up beside him.
"Right behind you, English." You say, giving him a small smirk. He grins and takes off through the trees. You follow him. You'll always follow him.
The sun is starting to set when Jake spots another deer. It has bigger horns than the last, so of course Jake needs to shoot it. You're at the top of a high rise hill, ending at a cliff on one side. The buck is far below and you can barely see him through the trees. You've both dismounted and your horses are tied up nearby.
Jake gets on his hands and knees and crawls toward the edge of the cliff, his bow in hand. You watch him for a moment. He looks ridiculous. You're far enough away you doubt walking to the edge would startle the buck. But it does give you a nice view of his ass.
When he realizes you're not following, he looks over his shoulder, scowling. "Strider! If you startle my prey, I swear I will dismember you!" He hisses, his voice low in warning.
You sigh and get down to your hands and knees and crawl after him. He settles near the edge, lowering himself to the ground. You lay next to him, giving him enough space to maneuver his bow when he's ready.
"I don't even see it." You whisper.
"Shhh!" He hisses.
You glance sideways. He has his hunting expression on and you know there's no use talking to him until he shoots. You look back to the woods below, but you see nothing but trees. it only takes a few seconds for that to become boring, so you look back to Jake. You have a decent view of his face as he scans the forest, his eyes searching the gaps between trees for his prey. He slowly rises to his knees, docking an arrow and pulling the sting halfway back.
He's swaying slightly, his aim drifting around without any place to land. "Come on, you wily bastard…" He mutters. The corners of your lips quirk upward. Once again, you see it in his eyes when he catches his prey. His bow snaps into place, he takes aim, and he shoots. The process only takes a couple of seconds.
This time he doesn't throw his arms up or even smile with that confident, smug smile that makes your gut twist pleasantly. He's frowning as he lowers his bow. "Dagnabbit!" He says, slapping the ground with his free hand.
"What happened?" You ask, looking over the trees below. There was no sign of the buck.
"Didn't you see it?" He looks at you and you just stare back. He sighs. "It was too far away, my arrow fell a little short and caught it in the leg."
"You probably could have shot that far if you used a crossbow." You point out. You don't know too much about them, but you do know they have more distance and more power to them than a longbow.
Jake scoffs and rolls his eyes. "Those contraptions are tacky and overrated." He states, pushing himself to his feet and offering a hand to help you up. You take it, enjoying the feel of his warm calloused fingers against yours. He's wearing the archery gloves you got him for yule time nearly seven years ago. They're worn from use, but still sturdy and obviously well loved. It nearly makes you smile whenever you see him wear them.
"A crossbow offers no challenge and it's far too slow. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, the pull of the string, the feel of shooting the arrow. Any young whelp can use a crossbow. It takes skill to use a longbow." He says, brushing off his pants.
You say nothing, but you smile a little and nod. You have to agree. Watching him wield a bow is like watching a painter paint a masterpiece. Every movement is precise and he gives himself over to the feel of the bow, of the hunt. Plus the way his muscles move isn't something you'd be able to see if he used a crossbow.
"Now come on, we have a partially wounded deer to track down." He turns and heads down the slope, along the cliff edge.
"On foot?" You say, one brow raised as you follow him.
"Of course! You think our horses could make it down there? No, it's far easier to climb." He picks his way carefully down the slope, looking for a less steep spot to start the climb down.
"It's getting dark." You say, glancing up at the setting sun. Shadows are already stretching across the landscape.
Jake slings his bow over his shoulder and scoffs. "Where's your sense of adventure, Strider?" He turns and crouches down, putting his hands firmly against the ground while his feet swing over the side of the cliff, looking for a foothold.
"It went down with the sun. I'm more of a daytime adventurer." You say blankly, taking a step toward the edge to look down. He chose a spot that was not nearly as steep as it had been up where he shot his bow. The ground went downhill at a slope that you could probably half climb, half run down. It's littered with rocks and outcroppings. Jake is hurrying down with a little more speed than necessary.
"Coming, Strider?" He says, looking up at you. You still haven't made any more to climb down.
"Jake, I don't think-"
You don't have time to finish your sentence before he's slipped. His foothold is a rock that's come loose. It clatters down the slope, Jake's foot going with it. He scrambles to grab something sturdy to hold onto, but fails and ends up half sliding and half tumbling down until he hits a level ledge.
"Shit, Jake." You say, immediately throwing yourself over the cliff edge and stumbling down to where he's at. You nearly fall head first at one point, but by leaning back against the sloping hill you manage to stay upright. Rocks and dirt fly out from under your feet, falling down to where Jake is, covering him with dust.
When you reach him, he's sitting up, his knees bent and leaning back on his hands. You sink to your knees beside him, hands hovering like they're not sure where to go. "Shit, Jake, are you alright?" You ask, your brow creasing slightly with worry.
He laughs and waves your hands away. "Nothing but a few scratches! I've been through much worse in my travels."
He looks fine enough. Your worry melts away and you smirk. "Where's your sense of balance, English?"
He lightly punches you in the arm, still grinning. "Probably with your sense of adventure, Strider."
"They've gone and eloped. That can't be good."
"They will make a stand-up pair. Now help me up so we can go hunt down that deer."
You roll your eyes. "Persistent, aren't we?" You push yourself to your feet and hold out a hand to him. He takes it and once again you're caught up in the sensation of his hand. You're not sure when it got bigger than yours. You remember when he was small and scrawny. Now his hand is bigger, broader, and tanner than your pale, slender fingers.
"A true hunter never gives up!" He says cheerfully as you pull him to his feet. However, as soon as he's up, he winces and nearly topples over again. Before he can go backwards further down the slope, you tug him toward you and catch him in your arms. He falls against your chest and once again you forgot how much heavier he is now. You both fall over, but at least it's against the cliff face and not down the hill. Several rocks are jutting into your back and you inwardly wince.
Jake is laying against your chest, between your legs. His hands are clutching the front of your tunic and your arms are around his back. You try not to think too hard about the position you're in.
"What the fuck, Jake?" You say, looking down at him.
He shifts in your arms and looks down at his legs. You watch as the left one moves and he winces. "Oh, bollocks." He curses under his breath before looking up at you and smiling sheepishly. "Looks like I've twisted my ankle."
You sigh and pinch the bridge of your nose, shaking your head slightly. "I knew this was a bad idea."
He lightly pats your chest, like you're the one who needs comforting. "It's alright, mate. I just have to move carefully. If we leave now, we can still catch-"
"No." You say, cutting him off.
"W-what?" He says, clearly startled by the sudden seriousness in your voice. He looks up at you with wide green eyes.
"We are not going chasing after some stupid deer just to satisfy your over ambitious ego. You're hurt. We're going back up to the horses and making camp." He can tell from your tone that there's no arguing with you.
Instead he just frowns, his brow furrowing and his nose crinkling. He searches your eyes, looking for a way around it. You give him none. You know your gaze is hard and unyielding. Finally he sighs, mumbling: "Fine."
It's a struggle to get Jake back up the hill to the top of the cliff, even if it's not that steep. He pushes past the pain with a small smile on his face, but you can see what he's trying to hide. You essentially have to carry him. You're not weak by any means, but damn, he's no little kid anymore.
Finally you make it to the top and you both practically throw yourselves over the cliff edge, crawling onto the level ground. The horses snort and paw at the ground while you both lay there, trying to catch your breath. All that's left of the sun is an orange tint to the horizon. You push yourself to your feet, order Jake to stay put, and begin setting up camp.
The cliff offers adequate protection. Anyone or anything would only have one way to get to you. And if they did try to scale the cliff, you'd hear them long before they reached you. Not that you worried too much about people. You were still on the outskirts of Strider land and you've worked hard to rid your fief of bandits. No one would be in this area. As for predators, the only ones you have to worry about in this area of the kingdom are wolves, and they're not nearly desperate enough to attack hunters.
You grab some wood and branches, setting up a fire. Though the days are pleasant and mild, the nights can grow cold with the beginning of winter. When you finally get that going, you unroll your bedroll next to the fire and then go to retrieve Jake's.
"Yo English, where's your bedroll?" You ask after a moment of fruitless searching.
He looks at you from where he's sitting near the fire. "A true adventurer doesn't need bedrolls."
"You forgot it, didn't you?" You say flatly. He shrugs and looks away.
You sigh and grab the saddlebags, going to sit next to him. "You can take mine." You say, digging around in the bags and pulling out the remains of your lunch, as well as some of the food you had packed for dinner.
"Heavens no, Dirk! I can't possibly take your bed." He says, unwrapping the bread and cheese. You go straight for the dried meat, gnawing on that while you answer.
"I insist." You say, revealing more of that hard edge that says it's not up for discussion.
He glares at you sideways. "I'm not taking your bed."
You shrug. "Then we're both sleeping on the ground."
"Stop being unreasonable!"
"Fine, we'll share. How about that?"
You look over at him. He looks perfectly serious. How can you possibly pass up the opportunity to sleep with your best friend? You can't. "Fine." You grumble. "But only if you cuddle the shit outta me." You say, a small smirk turning your lips.
He grins, playfully shoving you. "They'll be the best you've ever had."
You don't doubt it.
Conversation turns to more lighthearted topics as you finish eating. He tells you of other hunting trips he's gone on. He tells you how he started hunting by himself in the woods near his home. You can picture it easily. The young Jake you first met running through the trees and trying to track down rabbits with nearly no knowledge on hunting. It makes you smile.
He continues on to tell you how the knight he served taught him how to hunt properly. And when he learned Jake had a real talent for it, he went into further detail. You love listening to him talk. You love learning more about him, even though some of the stories are repeats. You don't stop him. You just eat your food.
Before long, he's yawning. He packs away what he didn't eat into his saddlebag and crawls over to the bedroll you set out. He settles under the wool blanket and gestures for you to join him. You slowly pack away your own leftovers, doing your best to hide your excitement. you don't want to seem too eager to get your cuddle on with your best friend. Even though you totally are.
You slip in next to him, putting him on the side with the fire. You want him to stay warm. The bedroll was only made for one, so space is scare. It gives you the perfect excuse to push an arm under his shoulders. He takes the hint and scoots closer. He's pressed against your side and it's the best feeling in the world. Unlike the last time you got a chance like this, when you were drunk and still squires, he's perfectly sober.
You're laying on your back, an arm around his shoulders, while he's laying on his side, pressed up against you. He wasn't kidding when he said he'd cuddle. His head is resting on your shoulder. Your body is alive everywhere he's touching. You try to memorize the feel of him, now that you're sober and have the mental capacity to do so. You'll remember this when you're alone at night, wrapped up with thoughts of him.
Over the past two years, you've kept in touch with Roxy though letters. Her letters mostly consist of updates on her quest to find a man. Your letters consist of your feelings for Jake. You realize your letters back and forth are more rants of your individual situations than an actual conversation, but you're okay with that. She gives you someone to talk to about your pain. She's always encouraging you to do something about it, but you know you can't. You can't risk ruining your friendship. Jake is so oblivious, which is the only reason he allows you to be so close. You don't want him to push you away. That would hurt worse.
"Say there, Dirk?" He says, breaking the silence and pulling you out of your thoughts. You realize you've started rubbing circles onto his arm with the hand that's wrapped around his shoulders.
"Hmmm?" You say, deciding not to stop.
"What if I take Dave as my squire?" He says, almost hesitantly.
Your hand stills and you shift slightly to look down at him. "What?" You say, unable to hide your surprise.
He glances up at you, and even in the dark you can see the smile on his lips that reflects in his eyes. "Well I know you're worried about him."
"I'm not worried." You say too quickly. You clear your throat. "He's a Strider. He'll be fine."
Jake chuckles and rests a hand on your chest, his fingers idly drumming against your tunic. "You can't fool me, Mr. Strider. I know you better than you think. You're worried about him." He says matter-of-factly. He prompts himself up on an elbow and looks down at you. "Admit it." He says, poking your chest repeatedly.
You grab his hand to stop his poking, and end up just sort of holding it there. "Yeah, okay, maybe." You mumble, looking away. Out of the corner of your eye, you see him smile.
"So who better than to look after him than your best bro?" He's practically grinning.
You roll your head over to look at him. "You don't have to."
His grin softens and his eyes get this look that you can't quite decipher. "I know I don't. But I want to." He lays back down and settles his head on your shoulder once again. Your grip on his hand has loosened but he still hasn't moved it, instead leaving it resting on your chest, under your own hand. "I know you care about family more than anything. I admire that about you, old chap. The least I can do as your best bro is make sure your little bro is well taken care of."
You turn onto your side so you're facing him and wrap him up in hug. You bury your face in his neck to hide the emotion you know is showing. He's startled at first. You can't blame him. You never initiate hugs. But then he wraps his arms around you and returns it.
"Thanks." You mutter against his skin. There's a waver in your voice that you hate. His grip on you tightens.
"Anytime, mate." He mutters. He starts to pull back, probably to look you in the face or something. You can't let him do that. You're certain your expression gives away all the emotion and vulnerability you want to hide. Even though Jake may know what you're feeling, that doesn't mean you want him to see it. You have your pride.
You hug him tighter and nuzzle deeper into the curve of his neck. "Not yet." You say, pleased when your voice is significantly stronger. Even if you sound like a stubborn child.
He sighs, giving in. "Fine." There's a laugh in his voice and you don't even care. This is Jake. Jake knows you better than anyone. Jake understands you. You don't need to tell him anything and yet he understands everything. Jake knows you worry about your siblings. He's trying to help because he knows you trust him more than anyone. He knows he's saving your pride by allowing you to stay pressed up against him. And he's letting you. Because he cares about you.
He may not love you like you love him, but he cares about you.
And it only makes you love him more.
One of his hands rubs circles up and down your back, while the other runs finger through your hair, much like you did for him earlier. You sigh against his neck and relax against him. You never want this moment to end. In this moment you can pretend that maybe, just maybe, he does love you back. In this moment, you can pretend Jake is yours and yours alone. In this moment, you don't even have to pretend you're happy. Because you are. In this moment you're happy and pressed against the man you love.
You fight the sleep that pulls at you, trying to memorize how he feels, the sound of his breath, the feel of his heartbeat. But you can't fight forever. You end up drifting to sleep, hoping you'll wake up in the same position.
Your love may hurt, but it's the best thing you've ever experienced and you'll never give it up.
Chapter 6: Decisions
Goodness this chapter took forever to chug out. It was just terrible to write. Just terrible. I hope you enjoy it though :P
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
==> Be Dirk Strider
You're currently angrier than you've ever been in your entire thirty-three years of existence.
You're angry Furious. Murderous even. You want nothing more than to ride your fastest horse to Alternia and personally slit the throat of those who dared to hurt the man you love. Just the thought of it is enough to make your hands tremble. Your blade calls out to you, and she calls for vengeance.
But you can't. As much as you would love to seek revenge, you can't. You're needed elsewhere. You're needed here. Jake needs you and that's the only thing anchoring you to the castle right now and not off to seek blood.
Actually, he may not NEED you. He makes a point to tell you he's fine nearly every hour. But this is where you need to be. Jake is impulsive and restless. Which is a terrible thing to be when he's extremely injured. No one else can handle him. He won't take anyone’s orders but yours. You're the only one who can keep him in bed and not off riding somewhere. He complains about you hovering, but you don't care. He can complain all he wants.
The point remains that you need to be here, for his health and your peace of mind.
You've never lost your cool like you did the night Jake showed up at your home, battered, bruised, and bleeding. You helped him off his horse, hurried him inside, and got your healers to work fixing him up. You stayed with him that night. He passed out quickly from exhaustion. You, at his side. He was so injured you were afraid to hold him, like you really wanted to do. So instead you held his hand, lacing your fingers together while he slept. His large calloused hand was warm, reminding you he was alive.
You didn't want him traveling the next day, but he insisted. After telling you about Jade being kidnapped, you reluctantly gave in. You made him ride with you on your horse, sitting in front of you so you could loosely encircle his waist with one arm. He protested, of course, and claimed he could ride a horse by himself. But he spent the whole ride leaning back against you and gritting his teeth. One of his hands rested on yours, nails digging into your forearm.
Over the past few days you've been hovering.
You hover when the castle healer changed Jake's bandages. You hover all day. There's barely a time of day when you leave his side, only to use the bathroom and occasionally to eat. Other times the food is brought to you with Jake's. You help him eat. With one broken arm and another one injured, you have to feed him half the time. He doesn't like it, it hurts his pride, but you don't mind. You help him to the bathroom when he needs it and you help the healer change his bandages. You enjoy the opportunity to touch him. Even the minimal contact reminds you that he's alive. He's alive and he's here, breathing and warm.
You sleep in a chair by his bed in the healer's wing. He tells you to go sleep in a real bed, but you refuse. You're stubborn like that. You'd rather sit in a wooden chair and lay your head on the bed beside him. Most of the time, you grab for his hand right before the two of you nod off to sleep. Sometimes he does it. When your back hurts bad enough, you can be convinced to sleep in the bed next to his. But when this happens, you usually end up staying up late, just watching him. Then when you do sleep, you have nightmares. All of these nightmares involve him dying. When you wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, you slide out of the bed and into your usual chair, falling back asleep with your head next to his arm, his hand clutched in yours.
Jake complains a lot, and often poked at you for being a mother-hen and a worry-wart, but you know he appreciates your company. He's a little upset that he didn't get to go with John and Dave to Alternia, and honestly, you are too. But he needs to stay here and you need to stay with him.
You spend your days talking. He tells you stories upon stories of his adventures. Some of them are repeated, many of them are details on a vague story he told before. You don't mind. You're just happy to hear his voice and see him so alive and animated. When he's aching or tired or his throat is sore, you take over. You talk about everything and nothing.
You can tell he just wants to hear you talk. So you tell him about the boring things, the exciting things, and everything that you do on a daily basis. Your stories aren't as exciting or full of adventure. Being the lord of a fief isn't that action packed. But you tell him about the people you have to protect. You tell him about your work stopping bandits from plaguing your land. You talk about helping out on farms during the harvest season and how you teach the young boys how to wield a sword, even though they'll never become pages or knights. He listens to everything, a small smile playing across his lips.
When you're both tired of stories, you hunt through the castle for board games. You find several and bring them back to him. Some you know how to play, others you don't. Sometimes you both make up your own rules. Sometimes you try to cheat, but he always catches you. Though, half the time you cheat on purpose so he'll playfully slap at you and tease you about your poorly disguised efforts.
When he's healed enough to walk around, you escort him wherever he wants to go. You take walks around the castle, through the gardens, by the training fields. You're at his side, constantly looking for a sign that he might be feeling weak and collapse. After the first few times you had to catch him after he got lightheaded or weak kneed, you limited the time he was allowed to walk around.
When the news came that your brother had been severely injured, you nearly lose it. You're pretty sure your vision clouded over as rage blinded you. You might have stormed off to Alternia and murdered everyone in sight if Jake wasn't sitting next to you. His hand on your arm, blunt nails digging into your flesh, is the only thing that brings you back to reality. He reminds you that Dave is alive and alright. And that John is working on peace with Alternia.
It's still tempting to go slaughter the guy who dared hurt your little brother.
Then Jake shows you the part of the letter where John says he personally beat the guy to a pulp and suddenly you feel a little better.
By the time they return, Jake is mostly healed. When he heals fully, he's encouraged and convinced to stay until Jade gets married. Despite being happy to attend any kind of celebration, Jake steers clear of the wedding preparations. So do you, and you both end up sneaking around and staying to the darker corners of the castle. He sees it as a game, hiding from anyone important. You go along for the ride, reveling in the childish glee on his handsome face.
You sat next to him during the wedding. He watched with rapt attention. During the after party, he willingly danced with any lady who asked, like always. You stood off to the side, sending icy stares to those who tried to approach. Roxy and Jane came. After all, it's the wedding of the kingdom's princess. Roxy talked to you for a little while, but then declared she had to go man hunting. You occasionally watch her flit across the room, scoping out potential suitors. But most of the time you're watching Jake.
The night is still young when he finds his way to your side.
He rests his hand on your shoulder and leans against you. "Why don't you dance, mate? I'm sure there are plenty of young ladies ready to swoon at your feet?"
You look over at him, smirking slightly. "The ladies will have to be disappointed, because I don't dance."
"Nonsense! I've seen you dance. You're quite good at it." He says, grinning. You notice he's putting a lot of his weight on you. His hand has shifted to his elbow. He looks a little shaky on his feet. You shift your weight to better support his.
"I only dance when I am obligated to or I find someone I like enough to dance with. So far it's only been the first one." You say. Of course you have found someone you would like to dance with. The only problem is he's a man and doesn't feel the same way about you.
With his free hand, Jake makes a wide sweeping gesture to encompass the entire room. "So you're telling me none of these ladies strike your fancy?"
You make a show of looking around the room like you're actually thinking, all the while keeping a very bored expression on your face. "Nope, not a single one." Your slow sweep of the room ends with you looking at Jake. A smirk tugs at your lips. "You, on the other hand, I think I could dance with."
His grin never falters. Laughter lights his green eyes. "Are you asking me to dance, Strider?"
Your smirk widens. "Maybe I am, English." You know he'll never take your offer seriously, but you almost wish he would. He's the only one you'd dance with willingly.
His grin fades to a sheepish smile. "As much as I would love to indulge your silly tomfoolery, I'm feeling a little lightheaded at the moment."
He tilts his head, his brow furrowed. "You know?"
"Dude, you're leaning on me like a barmaid on a rich young patron. Of course I know." You roll your eyes slightly and shift so you're facing him. His elbow is still on your shoulder, bringing him quite close. "Wanna go out for some air before you collapse?"
He gives you the most grateful, exhausted look you've ever seen. His whole body sags. "Yes, please. I suppose I'm not as recovered as I thought." He laughs and you sigh.
Together you leave the ballroom. Once you're out of the public eye, Jake's walk begins to stagger. Without hesitating, you step up next to him and wrap an arm around his waist. He sighs and looks at you with a smile of relief, resting his arm around your shoulders. He leans some of his weight on you and you gladly take it. You fit well together. He's only a few inches taller, a few inches broader, and you fit snuggly under his arm.
Apparently he was expecting to stop in the corridor, because he hesitates, but you keep walking. He follows your lead as you head down several corridors and out of the castle. You lead the way to the gardens. There are a few couples already there, but it's still too early for people to pair off and leave the festivities. Jake doesn't question you as you head toward the hedge maze.
It's not that much of a maze, really. It's short and simple and it is possible to get turned around inside, but it's easy to find your way out. You maneuver easily through it to the center, where there is a circular cobblestone clearing. In the center is a circular fountain with a wide lip. You lead Jake to the fountain and finally you both take a seat on the edge of the fountain. You're surrounded by high hedges and completely secluded. You have Jake all to yourself.
He sighs and stretches his legs out in front of him. "This is much better." He declares, leaning back to run his fingers through the water of the fountain.
"So we'll put dancing on the list of things you shouldn't do yet." You say, resting your hands behind you and leaning back.
"Now I wouldn't say that, old chap. But perhaps I shouldn't dance so much at once. I just can't find it in my heart to turn down a single lady." His head is tilted back and he's staring up at the night sky. It's still winter and without the sun, it's quite cold. But your clothes are thick enough to ward off most of the chill.
"Yeah, I noticed." Your eyes are on the water in the fountain. "Too bad. I won't be able to make you swoon at my feet with my dancing skills. You could learn from the best."
He laughs, his head falling to the side to look at you. "Yes, too bad. Though I am feeling better, if not still a little wobbly. All those ladies expect me to swing them around the dance floor. It gets quite tiring."
"What if I hold you up?"
"You heard me." You stand and move so you're facing him. "I'll hold you up." You give your best formal bow, making it a little over dramatic for added effect. "May I have this dance, sir English?"
He just stares at you for a moment, as if wondering whether you're serious or not. "There's no music."
"We don't need any." You say, holding out your hand. You see that look in his eyes. The look that says he can't resist a challenge. You might be exploiting his weakness for your own personal satisfaction, but you really can't help it. You rarely get this chance.
"As long as you don't let me fall, Strider." He says, taking your hand. You pull him to his feet and tug him toward you.
"Wouldn't dream of it." You say, a half-smirk, half-smile on your lips. You pull him toward you, stepping forward as you do, bringing your bodies close. You hold up his hand in yours, your other hand going to his waist. His free hand hovers for a moment before settling on your shoulder. He's frowning slightly, his brows furrowed, and it's adorable.
"Why must I be the girl?" He asks and he's definitely pouting.
"Because I'm the one leading." You say easily. Your feet are already moving, slow and measured steps. Forward, back, side to side. Jake does his best to follow you, but he's never been the best dancer, nor has he ever been in the woman's position. You go slow, patiently waiting for him to get the hang of it. Eventually he does.
You're moving together across the cobblestones. He's looking down, watching your feet, a look of concentration on his face. You smirk a little and close your eyes, feeling the movement rather than seeing it. He steps on your feet a few times, apologizing and cursing, but you just chuckle softly and say nothing.
After you've been dancing for a while and he's stepped on your feet about five times, he finally speaks. "This is more difficult without music." He says, laughing off his awkwardness. He has a point. You're moving to a rhythm in your head, but he can't hear it. He has nothing to go off of. You suppose you can accommodate him.
You pull him just a little bit closer. Your eyes are still closed as you begin to hum. First you hum the beats that your feet are moving to. But soon a melody enters your head and moves past your vocal chords and you're humming a song. It's no song you've ever heard, just little bits of random things you've heard, along with your own improvisation. Your humming is soft, but it sounds almost loud in your secluded section of the gardens.
You continue with your movements, leading Jake in a dance. It's as natural as breathing for you. With your melody, Jake's movements have gotten a little smoother. Before you realize it, you've both slowed down. You lean in closer so that there are mere inches between you, and warmth floods your chest when he wraps his arm around your neck and rests his forehead on your shoulder.
Your dance is really no more than swaying at this point, but neither of you stops. Your song just keeps going. You hum whatever melodies and rhythms that come to mind, all the while basking in this moment. He's so warm and so close and so alive.
Seeing him so wounded was terrifying. You've never been so scared. But now you can feel him. You can hear him breathing. He's in your arms, swaying with you, against you. You're sharing warmth and everything is just so perfect. You've always been jealous of the women who get to dance with him, but now you realize this is so much better. He's not dancing with you because he feels obligated. He's doing it because he wants to. He's not flinging you around the dance floor in a fun but impersonal manner.
You're holding each other, swaying together under the stars to your own soft humming. You've gotten quieter, but you're so close you know he can hear you perfectly fine. This is far more personal and far better than any dance any court lady has ever gotten out of him. You don't stop and he doesn't stop you. You're both content where you are.
You lose track of time and only decide to go back inside when neither of you can feel your fingers or toes. When you return to the castle, the festivities are nearly over. Neither of you say anything about it, but a near permanent smile is on your lips and a similar one is reflected on his.
Your state of blissful contentment ends the next day when Jake announces he'll be going with the wedding party to Alternia. You expected that much. He's the princess's cousin after all. What you aren't prepared for is him saying that maybe he'll find an Alternian wife. He says it like it's a joke. He says now with the peace, he has the opportunity to explore another country. That who knows, he might find a nice lady. Their strange looks intrigue him.
The knife cuts deep into your heart and twists.
He laughs and you laugh along, but your voice is hollow. You decline the invitation to go to Alternia, claiming that you can't forgive the people who harmed your best friend and your brother. Honestly you're perfectly capable of containing your murderous rage, but you don't think your heart can take it if Jake really does take a liking to Alternian women. You decide to go home instead. It's better this way.
The prince's wedding ceremony is even bigger than his sister's. It’s probably because it's not only a wedding ceremony, but also his crowning as Heir Apparent.
Because your father is long gone, you take up his role to escort Rose down the aisle. You practically raised her anyway. You'll never say it in so many words, but you're proud of Rose. She's a beautiful young woman and holds herself like a queen. Not to mention she's probably smarter than all the women and most of the men in the castle. She'll do a great job helping John run the country.
The ceremony goes off without a hitch. You watch from your seat next to Dave, occasionally sending him curious glances. He seems surprisingly fine with the whole ordeal. In fact, he's got this near constant small smile, which is the complete opposite from what you expected. You're not blind. You're not oblivious. And you're not stupid. You know your brother has a thing with the prince.
You suspected it for a while, but after Dave came home with his tail between his legs after the engagement announcement, your suspicions were confirmed. He can't hide anything from you anyway. You did your best to make him feel better, in your own way. You think it helped for the most part. Luckily Rose can also read Dave like a book and they talked it out. You were outside the door the whole time, listening. You were proud of Dave when he went back to face his fears. You didn't know what to expect, but apparently it worked out for the best. They still seem close as ever and the three of them look happy.
Or maybe you should say the four of them.
You could also understand Rose better than most. You understand her subtlety, in both actions and words. She's more difficult than Dave, but she's lived with you longer. She likes to think she's more hidden from you than she actually is. You know she has a thing with her handmaid. She's good about keeping it a secret, but there's nothing that happens in your home that you don't know.
Maybe the reason you can easily see both your sibling's secrets is because it's what you want for yourself.
But even though you can't be happy, you're glad they are. You raised them. They're equal parts your siblings as they are your kids. You may not be able to get the man of your dreams, but you're glad it worked out for both of them. You would, and have, and always will, sacrifice anything and everything for your siblings to make them happy. To make sure they have a good life.
Jake is the first to swear his loyalty to the new Heir Apparent and his wife. You're right behind him. You wait in silence while the rest of the knights do the same. Dave is the last. The king gives another speech before everyone moves to the great hall for a feast. You sit next to Jake at the royal table. He babbles on and on about weddings and tells you about his recent trips to Alternia.
You're happy to hear his voice again. It takes a weight off your shoulders you didn't know you had. He's perfect. He's beautiful. No one can even begin to compare to him. He's everything you want and everything you need. Unfortunately he's also everything you can't have. This is made terribly apparent when he begins to tell you about a fascinating Alternian woman he met who he's been visiting and exchanging letters with.
He says she's beautiful and kind and smart.
He says she might just be the kind of woman he can see himself settling down with.
He says it's probably about time he thinks about marriage.
Your heart sinks so fast that you feel like you've been punched in the lungs. Your throat closes up and you set your knife down, unable to eat anymore. You feel nauseous. You're not sure if you want to yell and scream and hit something, or run outside to throw up, or curl into a corner and cry. You settle for giving him a small, tense smile and telling him you're happy for him.
The words set fire to the shattered remains of your heart.
Your hope has gone out like a light. It has been a flickering candle flame, fighting the winds of reality for far too long. You knew it was useless from the start, but you didn't expect it to hurt so much.
After the feast, people start to gather in the ballroom for the festivities. John and Rose share the first dance, much like they did after their engagement announcement. Back then, Dave had a chaos of dark emotions in his eyes. You find him in the back of the crowd, leaning against a wall with his arms over his chest. He's the perfect picture of contentment and peace.
You stand up next to him, leaning against the wall and mirroring his position.
"Sup?" He says, his eyes still on the dancing couple in the center of the room.
"How're you feeling?" You ask, glancing sideways at him.
He turns his head slightly to meet your gaze. You can tell from the look he's giving you that he knows exactly what you mean. You're asking how he feels about the marriage between his lover and his sister. "Surprisingly okay."
"Everything work out?"
He nods, eyes sliding back to John, like he can't pull his gaze away for long. You know how that is. You feel the same for Jake.
"Yeah." He doesn't explain, but he doesn't need to. He's smiling slightly and you know how happy he must be. How relieved that he gets to keep John. Rose is probably feeling the same way, knowing she can keep her maid lover and not have to hide it from her husband. You've never been more jealous and happy at the same time. "You knew?" He asks after a brief pause. "About both of us?"
This time you nod, even though he's not looking at you. You feel a smirk tug at your lips. "Of course. I know everything. You two can't hide shit from me." And it's true. He knows it. He doesn't even try to fight it. He's come to accept that your sibling dynamic has no secrets, despite your few words.
"Should've known." He says, chuckling softly.
Your smirk widens ever so slightly, and softens significantly. "I'm proud of you, bro." You say softly.
He tenses and whips around to face you, his eyes wide and his mouth open. You meet his gaze steadily. "W-wha…" He stammers, his voice full of shock. "What did you just say?"
You stare at him for a moment longer, letting it sink in, before letting your gaze wander away. "I didn't say anything."
"Right." He says casually and looks away. Out of the corner of your eye you can see him practically grinning.
You push off the wall and clasp him on the shoulder. "You take care of him." You say, your voice low and serious. You meet his gaze and don't let him get away. "I'll be pissed as hell if you fuck this up." You pause and then add softly: "Not everyone gets this kind of chance."
Understanding flickers in Dave's gaze. His lips press into a thin line and he nods. If you could pick up on his thing with John, you're sure he could pick up your thing for Jake. You stare at him for a moment longer before nodding in satisfaction. "Good." You pat his shoulder and then let your hand drop. "Be gentle with your blushing bride tonight." You say as you walk away. You don't miss the way he smiles or the way his cheeks color slightly.
As you make your way through the crowd, your ears pick up on the sound of Jake's laughter on instinct. Your eyes find him like they have a million times before. He's standing with a group of knights, laughing and telling stories. You take a moment to simply stare at him, longing tugging at your heart. But you pull your eyes away. There's something you need to do.
You find Roxy in close proximity to the table that holds the wine. She's standing with Jane and a couple other young women. They all fall silent as you approach, staring at you over Roxy's shoulder. When she realizes her friends are no longer paying attention, she turns to see what they're staring at. Her face lights up when she sees you.
"Dirk! Long-time no see." She latches onto your arm with one hand and drags you over to her little circle. Her wine is carefully clutched in her other. "To what do we hoe, fuck, owe this honor?"
"I was hoping to speak to you alone." You say. You don't look away from her, but the others get the hint. They excuse themselves. Roxy is looking at you like you're a puzzle she's trying to solve. You try to keep your face as expressionless and neutral as possible. She waits until her friends are out of earshot before speaking.
"So what's up, dick?…Dirk." She smirks at her favorite mispronunciation of your name. Your expression doesn't change and her smirk slowly fades. "Okay, seriously, your look of doom and gloom is ruining my buzz. Talk to your good pal, Roxy."
You look away from her, finding a spot on the other side of the room to stare at. You remain silent for a while, trying to find the words to say what you want to. No, not want. Need. You need to do this. It's for the best. Even if part of you is crying out for you to stop a large part of you, the majority of you, in fact. But that part has been beaten and bruised over the years and is easily overpowered.
"Do you remember that deal we made?" You finally say, speaking slowly. There's only one deal you ever made. It's hard to miss your meaning.
She's quiet for a long time and you can't bring yourself to look at her. Her grip has tightened on your arm. "Shit, Dirk! Are you serious?" She finally says.
You turn to meet her gaze. She's staring at you with shock and wonder and maybe a little bit of hope.
"Yeah, I'm serious." You say, trying your best to keep your face from falling.
"What about Jake?" She asks bluntly. Her other hand is starting to fall, nearly spilling her wine before she remembers it's there.
You actually sigh, and with it your features finally fall. It may be subtle, but you know she can see your despair and hopelessness. "It's never going to happen."
"But how do you knooooow?" She asks, practically whining. As much as you know she wants someone to marry, she's always idolized your love for Jake as a fairy-tale romance in the making.
"It's been years, Rox. If it was meant to be, it would have happened by now." You frown slightly. "And…he's talking about proposing to an Alternian woman."
You watch as her face contorts into a mix of pity, anger, and sadness. She knows your plight. You've told her everything about your feelings in your letters. She knows exactly what you've been going through and how much it hurts. She knows exactly how much it must hurt to give up hope. How lost you must feel.
"You never know…" She starts, but you don't let her finish.
"Do you want to marry me, or not?" You say with a little impatience and a little more pleading than you would have liked.
She fights off a smile and loses. "That's the worse porpoisel…proposail…shit, proposal I've ever heard."
You shrug. "Take it or leave it."
This time she looks away, her magenta eyes finding her goblet and staring at the wine within. She doesn't drink it. You watch as various emotions pass over her face. She's never been good at hiding them, especially while intoxicated. You know she's excited. Marriage and a family is everything she's ever hoped for. But it comes at the price of your heartbreak, which you can tell she's unhappy about.
When she finally looks up at you, her lips are pursed together. "If you're sure…"
"I don't want you to regret this."
"Well someone has to pass on the Strider name. I know for a fact Dave won't." You say nonchalantly. She stares at you with an unsatisfied knowing look and you sigh, running your fingers through your hair. "I'm tired of being lonely, Rox. I know you are too. Maybe this will be good for us. Make us not fucking losers."
She smirks slightly and nods in agreement. "We are such fucking losers." She says, slurring her words.
"And maybe kids can fix our loneliness, too."
"I'm willing to try if you are."
You stare at each other. You can tell she's thinking it over, but you know her answer before she gives it. She steps away from you and holds out a hand. "You've got yourself a deal, Mr. Strider." She says, a small smirk on her lips.
Your smirk mirrors her own, even if pain clenches at your heart. "Cool."
You shake her hand and you know this will be good for you, for both of you. She's one of your closest friends. You can have a family together. You'll never be alone again. You love her, but not like you love Jake. She'll never make your heart race like Jake does. Her smile will never make your stomach flip. Her laugh will never make your spirit soar. But she can make you happier than you are right now.
You know this will be good for you, but as you shake her hand, you hear Jake's laughter across the room and regret gnaws at your gut.
You don't think you'll ever stop loving him, but at least you can find some happiness.
Life is getting sad for Dirk, but fear not. I'm a firm believer in happy endings. If it's not happy, it's not the end.
Chapter 7: Loss
This is going to be a sad chapter, just a warning. I beg you though, please don't let this ruin the story for you. Please please please just read through it, because the ending of the story will be happy, I promise.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
==> Be Dirk Strider
You've been married for three years and they've been the happiest years of your life.
You always thought you could never love anyone other than Jake. You were convinced your heart had been filled completely with his handsome face and enthusiastic smile. When you agreed to marry Roxy, you assumed you'd have a more platonic relationship. You were wrong. Turns out you could and did fall in love again.
Roxy's infectious smiles and enthusiasm for everything reminded you of Jake. The way she joked with you and wasn't afraid to punch you when you deserved it reminded you of Jake. The way she understood you and knew nearly everything about you reminded you of Jake. But that's not all it was. She wasn't just a female copy of Jake for you to use as a replacement. She was her own person.
She liked to drink, but she had a tendency to play up how drunk she actually was. She was sharp and witty and was always with you in a conversation. She put others before herself constantly. After bringing her to your fief, she didn't stand idly by while you took charge. She was right there with you when you rode into villages and helped those who needed you. She was an excellent shot with a crossbow and though you didn't think bandit hunting was a place for a woman, she wouldn't let you refuse. She was useful, resourceful, and caring.
She snuck into the empty void in your heart like a rogue and made her own place there.
Since then she's been your wife, your lover, one of your best friends, and the mother of your children.
Your first child was a son and, after Roxy's incessant insisting, you named him after yourself. Dirk Strider II. He was blonde haired and his eyes were a dark, deep shade of pink, somewhere between Roxy's eyes and those of your brother. His name, however, quickly became confusing so Roxy started calling him little Di-Stri. The nickname stuck.
You admit, at first you had been worried about whether or not Roxy's love for alcohol would interfere with her mothering. But you soon realized you had nothing to worry about. Her motherly instincts were just as strong, drunk or sober. She even stayed sober from the moment she realized she was pregnant up until the day she gave birth.
When you asked her why, she said that her nanny had always told her that alcohol was bad for an unborn child. She wasn't sure how true it was, but she wasn't taking any chances. All except for a cup of wine every month to "keep up good health." You're not sure if it made a difference, but she's stubborn, and you knew you couldn't convince her otherwise. She would do anything to protect those she loved. And that included the baby she carried inside her.
After little Di-Stri was born, Roxy proved herself to be unconventional in yet another way. Unlike most noblewomen, who let their children be taken care of by nannies and servants, Roxy took an active role in your son's life. The nannies were only there when she needed rest or was extremely busy. She stopped accompanying you to villages until Di-Stri was big enough to travel with you. When he was old enough to start eating, she fed him. She played with him. She even sang him to sleep.
You had never realized she could sing, but her voice was beautiful, even when she slurred due to intoxication.
One time you asked her why she was so determined to play an active role in taking care of Di-Stri. She got this sad, wistful look on her face and told you how she was raised by nannies and servants. How her parents were rarely there. How they didn't really spend time with her until she was older, and by then it was too late. Her parents felt impersonal. The servants who raised her and the kids she played with felt more like family than those who gave birth to her. You just smiled and held her while she held your son. And you listened quietly while she sang him a lullaby.
After that, you tried to spend as much time as possible with your son. It was difficult. The daily routine you'd created over the past few years required you to be away from your home and traveling your lands often. But that was because you had been alone, with no one to come home to. Now that you had a family, you realized where you needed to be.
So you stopped traveling so much. When you read over reports, you let Di-Stri sit on your lap and drool to his heart’s content. You didn't even get mad when it got on your papers. You've never been great with kids. Even though you raised your brother and sister, you weren't around when they were babies. But instincts are strange things.
You weren't the best father. You were unsure what to do when he cried. You couldn't make faces at him till he laughed like Roxy. You didn't make strange sounds when you talked to him. But you tried, and you were around, and that counts for something.
After your nightly meal, you would sit around with Roxy and Di-Stri. You got on the floor with them. You rolled around with your son. Roxy would put him on your back and you'd shuffle around on your hands and knees.
One night, when he was about nineteen months old, the three of you were in yours and Roxy's shared bedroom. Roxy was lying on the bed, reading some kind of story John's wife, Rose had written. You weren't even aware they were friends, but apparently it didn't take much and they clicked near instantly. The queen-to-be had started writing stories and only shared them with her closest friends. When you asked to read them, Roxy had said no. When you tried to take them from her, she fought tooth and nail to keep them away. You gave up after that.
You were on the floor, lying on your stomach, watching while your son sat in front of you, playing with some of his toys. Puppets you had given him.
"Misser T." He said, holding up a yellow puppet. It was yours when you were small.
"Yup, that's Mr. T." You said, humoring him as he introduces you to his puppets for the tenth time that night. You've forgotten what the T stands for.
"Chuck." He said, holding up a red one in his other hand.
"Yup, sup Chuck?" You were fond of that one. He had big hands and when you were a kid, you made him punch all the other puppets.
"Mappa Hoov." He held up a horse toy. That one used to be Dave's. Kid couldn't sleep without it. You were saving it to give to his own kid, but now that you know he isn't going to have any, you've decided to take it upon yourself to keep up the Strider lineage.
"Hey there, Maple Hoof." You reached out and shook one of the horse's legs. Di-Stri nodded, like you've done something right. "So where's daddy's puppet?" You asked, folding your arms under you and resting your chin on them. "Where's lil' Cal?"
Cal was a puppet that belonged to your father. When you were little, you were plagued by nightmares. He gave you Cal to keep the nightmares away and help you sleep. He said Cal would watch over you, even if he couldn't. After your father died, Cal became even more precious to you. Di-Stri would inherit him, too. Once he was old enough to understand the sentimentality of it.
Di-Stri looked around, scrunching up his tiny baby face in concentration. He couldn't find him and you decided to help him out. When his head was turned, you flash stepped over to the dresser, where Cal was perched, set him on the ground next to it, and flash stepped back, taking up your previous lounging position.
When Di-Stri spotted him, he started bouncing, pointing, and practically gurgling in excitement. "Dere! Dere daddy's Cal!" You smiled his excitement endearing. And then he did something you weren't expected at all. In a blur he was gone. You blinked and he was back, Cal cradled in his arms. He held out the puppet to you but all you could do was stare, eyes wide and mouth open.
"Roxy!" You had shouted, pushing yourself to your knees. "Roxy! Roxy come look!" You were shouting and you didn't even care.
"What?" She asked, scrambling to the edge of the bed to look down at you.
You scooped him up into your arms, Cal and all, and stood. "He flash stepped. Roxy he flash stepped!" You spun him around and he laughed. "I couldn't do that until I was five! Fucking amazing!"
You'd never been so proud in your life.
Several months later, Roxy announced she was pregnant again. You weren't really surprised. After all, just because you'd loved Jake for years didn't mean you weren't attracted to the female body. And Roxy was very attractive. It didn't take much for her to lure you into bed, and she'd been doing that a lot. You knew she was trying to expand your family, and you didn't complain. So her second pregnancy was a thing to be celebrated.
Di-Stri was ecstatic when you told him he'd be getting a little brother or sister. You were happy to see your family grow. Roxy practically glowed. As she got bigger, you often took naps laying your head on her belly while she held Di-Stri in her arms.
You were a family. You were happy. You weren't alone. You were in love. You loved Roxy and it was more than a platonic sisterly or best friend way. You loved her as a woman should be loved. Especially one so beautiful, so exotic, and nonconventional as her.
This didn't mean you stopped loving Jake. No, you still loved him. You still loved him as you always had, but your heart was big enough for more now. When you read his letters, it didn't hurt anymore. You still saved every last one and wished you could spend more time with him, but it didn't sting whenever he talked about spending time with this one Alternian woman he'd become fond of. You found yourself wishing him happiness, even if it meant you weren't part of it.
Sometimes, late at night or when you were alone or traveling, you wondered what it would be like if you had gotten Jake. It would have be amazing, of that you have no doubt. But apparently it wasn't meant to be. Now you had a wonderful wife who understood you just as well as he did, a son who makes your heart swell every day, and another child on the way.
Fatherly pride and love was almost enough to make you forget about your regret of never telling Jake about your feelings. Not that it mattered now. Even if you did tell Jake and he said he loved you back, you wouldn't abandon Roxy. You loved her too and you loved your family and this is the path you chose.
And you could tell Roxy was happy too. You've never seen her so happy. She still drank, but she drank in smaller amounts. Seeing her with Di-Stri nearly always brought a small to your face. One night, before Di-Stri was born, she admitted that she had been harboring feelings for you for a while. But she saw how you looked at Jake and could never come between you two. She could hardly believe it when you agreed to marry her.
When you told her you loved her, you thought she was about to die from happiness.
You loved being the cause of her smiles, of her laughs. You loved seeing the child you created together.
Life was perfect. Life was amazing. Life was finally everything you'd always wanted and never thought you could have. Life was finally paying you kindness where it had previously been giving you nothing but woe. That is, until Roxy went into labor.
It started a month before she should have. You weren't not an expert on birthing, but you knew early was bad. But that wasn't any cause for real concern. Plenty of women had given birth to early babies and both mother and child had survived.
While Roxy was locked away in her birthing room, you and Di-Stri waiting in your room. When he asked what was wrong with momma, you said nothing was wrong, the baby was coming. He showed excitement, and so did you. But as time went on, you grew more worried. You pulled your best poker face to keep Di-Stri from noticing. Unfortunately, he was a Strider, and he was able to read you like a book.
You ended up laying on your back with Di-Stri laying on your chest.
And that's where you are now. Thinking about everything and trying to think about nothing. You hold your son close with lil' Cal smushed between you. He rests his head on Cal's middle, one of the puppet's hands clutched in his tiny grip. You both gain strength from it.
You wait the same amount of time it took for Di-Stri to be born before truly panicking. At that point, you can't stay still. You start pacing, Di-Stri cradled in your arms and Cal clutched in his. You pace along the confines of your room. Over and over. It feels like an eternity before a servant finally knocked on your door.
You throw it open, both you and your son staring at the woman intently. She looks you straight in the face, firm and unflinching. You recognize her as one of the midwife's assistants. She's a middle aged woman with enough experience with upset husbands.
"Milord." She says, giving you a small curtsey.
"What happened?" You ask, your voice cold and emotionless, betraying none and yet all of the fear you feel.
"Lady Roxy isn't doing so well-"
"What happened?" You repeat, a little louder as you lose your patience. You don't want to dance around the subject. You need to know what is happening to your wife and you need to know now. The woman frowns and her brow furrows. She looks grim, but she understands your urgency.
"Twins." She says and all you can do is gape.
"W-what?" You're so shocked you actually stutter.
"Twins, milord." She repeats. "She's having twins." Your whole body stiffens and your blood runs cold. Your grip on Di-Stri tightens and he notices.
"Daddy?" He looks up at you, even reached up a hand to pat you on the cheek. "Daddy what’s twins?"
You can't bring yourself to look at him, let alone answer him. You're still staring at the woman and you can see the pain in her eyes. She hates being the bearer of bad news as much as you hate hearing it.
Twins were bad. Twins meant an almost certain death. Few women could handle giving birth to two babies one right after the other. Plus because there were two of them, the odds of the second baby being turned around inside the womb was higher. Few women survived twins. The former queen didn't.
"How far along is she?" You ask, your voice barely above a whisper. You're afraid if you speak any louder your voice will crack.
"The first baby is born, milord. Healthy. A boy."
"And the second?"
"There are…complications." Her firm and determined expression breaks and she actually looks sad and worried. "I was told to come get you. She wants to talk to you…"
It takes you all of two seconds to start moving. You shove your son, Cal and all, into the woman's arms, muttering a quiet: "Watch him." Then you flash step the hell out of there and down the hall to your wife's birthing room. You stop outside the door to take a deep breath, trying to steady yourself. You then throw the door open and it takes you a moment to take in the whole scene.
The fire is roaring in the fireplace, boiling cauldrons of water. There is a servant boiling cleaning cloths. Servants and assistants are scrambling everywhere. A baby's cry echoes in the background. A crib stands in the corner, a woman leaning over the edge, trying to soothe the baby into silence.
Roxy is laying on the bed, her back propped up. Her knees are in the air and a blanket is around her waist. Her feet are perched on the edge of the mattress and the midwife is standing there, a hand on her knee as she spoke words that you can't hear. There is a lot of blood. Blood soaked rags. Blood soaked sheets. Blood soaked hands of the midwife.
At the sound of the door being opened, everyone froze to stare at you. You can tell the midwife isn't happy, but you don't care. Your eyes are on Roxy.
Her hair is disheveled and soaked in sweat, pushed back from her forehead messily. Her hands are clutching the sheets at her sides. She's deathly pale.
"Dirk…" She breathes, a small smile on her lips, but it's strained and she's panting.
"Roxy…" You say, your voice just as breathless. You flash step to her side and you lean over the bed, grabbing one of her hands in yours.
"What's up, Dick?" She says, and despite sounding completely and utterly exhausted, she actually manages to tease you. God, you love this woman. You reach out with your free hand to cup her cheek. She leans into it and nuzzles your palm like a cat. Her pale skin is coated in sweat.
"Fuck, Roxy, I'm so sorry…" You mutter, stroking her cheek with your thumb.
She smiles, actually smiles, with teeth and everything. "For what? Knocking me up? If you remember correctly, I was the one seducing you every night. Which, might I add, wasn't that hard." The midwife makes a disgruntled sound and Roxy gives you a dramatic wink.
Your smile is only there for a second before falling. "But, twins…"
She rolls her eyes and slaps at your arm with her other hand. It's weak. "Oh shut up. My body decided to make two babies. It's not your fault."
"Dirk…" She gives you this look that you know means 'shut up.'
"Dick. No. Stop." Her hand that you're not holding goes to your mouth. "This isn't your fault. I don't blame you. And will you shut up with the pity party for like, two seconds so I can say what I want to say?"
You stare at her, but say nothing. You're kind of surprised how articulate she can be when she hasn't been drinking. You're used to her slurring and mutilating words. She keeps her hand over your mouth, and though you know you could easily move it, you don't.
"Okay, so I'm dying." Your eyes narrow and you open your mouth to protest, but her hand pushes more firmly against your lips and she glares at you. "Eh! Eh! Eh! No talking! Momma's talking now." You sigh, your breath hot against her hand. "That's better." She says, nodding. Then her face contorts and she pales more, if that's even possible. "Hold that thought." She manages to say through a lot of effort.
Her hand drops away from you in order to clutch the blankets. You hold onto her other hand in yours and she squeezes it tight.
"Push, milady." The midwife orders and Roxy does. Her entire body clenches and her faces scrunches up in effort. She grunts and you know she's on the verge of screaming, but she bites it back. You watch in mild horror as she rides out more contractions and more blood oozes onto the midwife's hands.
When it's over, Roxy collapses back onto the mound of pillows. She's panting heavily and she rolls her head sideways to look at you. You can see the pain in her eyes, the exhaustion of her body. She's already birthed one baby and now she has to go through it all again. Her body isn't ready and you can see that. You just don't want to believe it.
When she finally catches her breath, she licks her lips and speaks, her voice ragged with unshed screams. "As you can see, I'm dying. DON'T even try to deny it, Dirk." She says, quickly cutting off your protests. "I'm dying. I know it. You know it. Even the midwife knows it." The woman stays silent and cleans up the mess as best she can. "I'm dying and there's shit I need to say before I do."
You manage to swallow past the lump in your throat and nod. You're amazed how calm she's being about this.
"Okay, listen up, cause I'm only gonna say this once. I love you, but if you mourn me for more than a week, I'm gonna come back from beyond the grave and haunt the shit outta you. I'm serious! You won't be able to get rid of me!" When she sees your small smile, she continues. "Now that we got that outta the way, here's what you're gonna do. Are you listening to me? Huh?"
You nod, holding her hand in both of yours. "I'm listening." Your voice is ragged. You're holding back tears.
"Good. Now for one, you are not going to mope around like a big baby, a'ight? I may be gone, but I am not dying just so you can ignore our kids in your stupid pity party." She stares at you until you nod. "For two, you promise me that you're going to take care of our kids. They won't have their momma, so they're gonna need their daddy." Your vision blurs and you do your best to blink the tears away. You nod.
She reaches out with her free hand and cups your cheek. "For three, after you mourn me for a week, you're going to go out and get yourself some hot English ass."
Your eyes widen and you sputter, trying to find words. Roxy stops you before you can.
"Now, now, Dirky-poo, I know you still love him."
"I love you." You say firmly, squeezing her hand.
She smiles at you fondly. "I know, but you've never stopped loving him either." She pats your cheek lightly. "Our time together was short, but I don't regret any of it. I love you, Dirk. I really do. But I want you to be happy even when I'm gone. So you need to go out and get the man of your dreams." She says it with such sincerity that you can't deny her.
"What if he doesn't love me back?" You ask, your voice small and unsure. You sound like a child and you feel like one.
"Then you make him! Show 'em your moves, Strider. It worked on me." She says, giving you a small smile. You think she would normally grin, but it takes too much effort. "But seriously, just tell him how you feel. Even if he says no, you're not alone. You have a family to take care of. They need you, even if Jake doesn't." She grips your hand and looks you right in the eye. "Do it for me."
You sigh, hanging your head in defeat. "Fine."
"Okay, good." She relaxes. You hadn't realized how tense she'd been. She leans her head back and closes her eyes. "Now get me a drink and hold me so I can get this last baby out."
You find no reason to deny her. If she wants a drink in her last hours, then dammit she's going to have a fucking drink. You order a servant to go get some of your best wine, and you tell her to make it fast.
The midwife tells you that the baby is in position, all Roxy has to do is push. But she's lost so much blood and it shows no signs of stopping, and it's been too much strain on her body. She says that Roxy probably won't survive for long after. You both nod. You expected that, but it still comes as a hard blow.
You crawl onto the bed, settling yourself behind your wife, with her nestled between your legs and leaning back against your chest. You hold both her hands and despite how weary she is, you know her grip is going to leave bruises. You don't complain. You rest your head against the side of hers, whispering words of encouragement when she's pushing and telling her how much you love her when she's not.
Time seems to pass quickly and yet slowly. Roxy's screaming, her body clenched and straining. Then she collapses against you and the midwife stands, a blood covered baby in her arms. An assistant wraps it in a wet cloth, cleaning it while the midwife cuts the cord. You smooth Roxy's hair back, whispering sweet words to her. Her legs collapse onto the bed and the midwife covers her completely with the blanket. You know there's nothing they can do to stop the bleeding at this point.
A servant brings a goblet full of wine and Roxy takes it with shaking hands. You take it from her before she can spill it and hold it to her lips. She drinks greedily before leaning back with a content sigh. She's always loved wine.
"I wanna see my babies." She says, her words slurring with exhaustion rather than the alcohol. The midwife's assistants oblige her and bring both babies to the bed. They're both wrapped in blankets and fast asleep. They're placed on Roxy's lap, one cradled in each arm. You wrap your arms around hers, securing her hold and holding all three of them at once. She's staring down at them, a small smile on her face. Then she suddenly gasps and looks up sharply. "Where's Di-Stri?" She asks, sounding almost panicked. "I need to see Di-Stri!"
"Go get our son." You say, turning to the closest servant. The woman nods and rushes out of the room. It's only a few minutes before Di-Stri arrives. He's being carried by the woman you left him with earlier.
She sets him on the bed and he crawls to your side. "Momma? Daddy?" He says, his voice small. You open up one arm to him and he quickly presses into your side. You wrap your arm back around Roxy's, effectively closing Di-Stri into the embrace. He's pressed between your side and Roxy's.
"Hey, honey, wanna see your new brother and sister?" Roxy says, her voice is quiet and weak, but you can hear all the motherly affection in it. Di-Stri peers over her shoulder and reaches out to touch the closest baby.
The three of you stay like that for the longest time, and you wish it could have lasted forever. But with each passing moment, Roxy grows weaker and weaker. When she can barely keep her eyes open, you call a servant over to take the babies back to their crib to sleep. Roxy relaxes and her body is like a dead weight on your chest.
For that briefest of moments, your family had been whole. You'll never forget that moment as long as you live.
Di-Stri has always been a bright child and from the way he's looking at Roxy, you know that he knows. He crawls into Roxy's lap and she doesn't protest, even though you know it probably pains her. She wraps her arms around him and he buries his face in her chest, wrapping his tiny arms around her neck. You hold them both.
"Momma okay?" He whispers.
"No, baby, momma's not okay." She says, rubbing his back. Her eyes are closed and her voice is thick and sluggish. "Momma has to go away now, but we'll be together again someday, okay?"
"Don't go!" He says and though his face is hidden, you know he's crying. Your head is next to hers and several tears have already made their way down your cheeks.
"I'm sorry, honey, but I gotta. You be strong and take care of daddy and the twins, okay? I need you to be a big boy. Your family needs you." He nods but don't say anything. His small body is shaking with sobs, but he's doing his best to hold back the sounds. Roxy tilts her head back to rest it on your shoulder. "That goes for you too. Be a big boy, take care of our family, and don't forget your promise to me, alright?"
"I won't forget." You say, turning your head to press a kiss to her temple. "I love you, Roxy."
"Love you too, Dirk. You've made me happier than I ever thought I could be. Don't forget that." She coughs and it's violent. When she settles back down, your arms tighten, encircling your wife and your son for the last time. When she speaks again, you can barely hear her voice. "I'm so tired... It hurts." For the first time, she starts to sound scared. You're amazed how brave she's been, but now when faced with it, she's scared and you can't blame her.
"I know, shhhh." You say, pressing your lips to her temple once again. You lift one hand to gently stroke her hair. "Go to sleep."
"Don't leave me…"
"I won't…I'll be right here…I promise…" Your own voice is thick with tears and you can barely choke the words out.
"Sing to me…" You can barely hear the words, but you know what she said.
You can't sing, and you both know it, but you're not about to argue with her. If she wants your terrible voice to comfort her, then she'll get it. You start to sing her favorite lullaby, but your voice cracks and you have to stop to clear the lump from your throat. Your wife needs you and this is not the time to break down. You need to be strong. So you summon all your will power and continue.
You sing softly, humming and murmuring into her ear while your hand gently caresses her hair. Di-Stri realizes what you're doing and turns his head, revealing his tear stained face. He sings along with you as best he can.
By the time you finish the song, Roxy's asleep. When you check her pulse, there is none. You finally let yourself break down and cry, sobbing as you hold her in your arms. Your son cries with you.
That night and for the next few weeks, he sleeps in your bed. You let him, because you need the comfort just as much as he does.
You name your new daughter Roxy, after her mother, and your new son David, after your father. Both were extraordinary people who lived life their own way. Both of them are the bravest people you've ever known. And both were people you loved with your whole heart and lost far, far too early.
I just wanna say that I really love Roxy.
Originally Dirk's wife was going to be a nameless, faceless woman. But then someone asked if Roxy would be in the story, and well, she just fit the part of Dirk's potential wife so well. I didn't enjoy her death, but I needed it to happen keep the story going and for Dirk to have some Strider heirs.
Fun fact: this is the only chapter I've ever written that has made me tear up.
Chapter 8: Awakening
There are probably several spelling mistakes and stuff in this. I was super lazy with proofreading it. I apologize.
==> Be Dirk Strider
At thirty-eight, you're a single father and doing the best you can.
It's been one year since Roxy died. One year of trying to cope with that loss. And one year of mourning.
You know she said you were only allowed to mourn her for a week, but you simple couldn't get over it that fast. She may not have been your first love, or your longest, or your deepest, like Jake, but she was a major part of your life and she was everything to you. In the three years you were married, she flawlessly ingrained herself into your life. Now everything reminded you of her.
Your room and your bed are eerily empty. Your rides through your fief are familiar but lonely. Her crossbow. Her seat at the table. Her maids. Her favorite foods. Any type of alcohol. Flowers the same shade of pink as her eyes. But where you see her the most is in your children. David is only one year old and you can already tell he's going to look a lot like his momma. Even little Roxy inherited her mother's blinding smile. Even Di-Stri, who looks nothing like Roxy and everything like you, reminds you of all the happy memories you had as a family.
But time heals all wounds, and though there will always be a scar on your heart from her death, the wound is nearly gone. When you think of her, depression sets over you. When you miss her, melancholy fills you up. When you're reminded of her, your smiles are tinged with sadness. But you're accepted her death and you're moving on. You keep her in your heart. She's a reminder that you can find happiness, that you shouldn't give up hope, and that you're never alone.
But most of all, she's a reminder that love is worth any obstacle life throws at you.
True to your word, you don't dare forget about your kids. Despite feeling a little awkward, as you did when Di-Stri was a baby, you do your best. You're not quite sure how to handle babies. For the most part, the wet nurse and the nanny take care of them. But you always make sure to spend time with them everyday. When you're home, Di-Stri follows you around and refuses to leave your side unless you specifically order it. And you rarely do.
Sometimes he thinks he's being sneaky, following you around with Strider speed and silence. But he's still young, and therefore clumsy. The servants don't always realize he's there, but you do. And you never say anything about it. You let him continue to stalk you and watch you until he gets bored and falls asleep behind a door, under a desk, behind a curtain, or in a closet. Then you carefully pick him up and take him to his bed.
You don't mind Di-Stri's clinginess. You know why he does it. He already lost his mom, and he doesn't want to lose you too. You don't like to admit it, but you're comforted by his nearness as well. Sometimes when you're doing paperwork, you let him sit on your lap. Most of the time he just falls asleep and you cradle him against your chest, stroking his hair until you're done.
You've started him on sword training. Obviously nothing too hard. The kid's only three. But you got him a toy wooden sword to play with and you teach him stances to practice. You'll actually teach him about fighting when he's a little older.
After Roxy died, you filled your life up with your kids. They mean the world to you. And despite Roxy's encouragement, you still doubt you'll ever be able to win over the man of your dreams.
Only a few weeks after her death, Jake arrived at your home. You sent him a letter the day after, along with one to Dave and Rose, Roxy's family, and Jane, informing them what had happened. As soon as he got the letter, he traveled straight for your fief without stopping. Or so he claims. He'd visited several times while you and Roxy were married, but it wasn't as often as when you were still alone. He met Di-Stri when he was a baby, but it had been nearly seven months since you saw him.
Once he arrived, you managed to keep your cool for just long enough to escort him into a sitting room. As soon as the doors shut, you started to cry and Jake enveloped you in his arms. You didn't sob and you didn't blubber. You didn't make any sounds other than the occasional sniffle and hitched breath. Tears just streamed down your cheeks in a never ending cascade. Jake ushered you to the couch and let you curl up in his lap, your face buried in his tunic and your tears soaking it. He didn't say anything. He just held you and waited.
It was the second time he'd ever seen you cry, and he handled it much the same way. The first time being when you were still boys and your father died. Even as grown men, he allowed you to act like a child and cry yourself out. He's the only one, other than Roxy, to have ever seen you this weak.
God, you love this man.
Jake stayed with you for a week before he had to go. He said he had things to do, but would return soon. You couldn't blame him for leaving. He was the royal ambassador and had responsibilities. But that didn't stop you from silently crying into your pillow that night.
You've gotten stronger since then. The pain of loss isn't as fresh. After a few months, you could talk about her without getting choked up. The sadness returned and clung to you like a second skin, but you could deal with it. You had to be strong. Your children were depending on you.
Six months ago, Jake returned to your home. He stayed there for a month, and then traveled for a month, and then returned. He's kept up this pattern of a month with you and a month away. You never asked him to, and once you told him that he didn't have to spend so much time with you. He just smiled and told you it was what bros were for. You haven't told him exactly how much you appreciate the time he spends with you, but you know he knows.
When he's there, you try to refrain from traveling. You spend time in your castle, with your best friend and your children. He's actually a lot better with kids than you are. You think it's because he still acts like a child. Di-Stri was a little hesitant with him, but the twins took to him right away. Especially little Roxy. When he lays on the floor, she loves to crawl all over him and tug on his hair. He doesn't mind. He just lays there and laughs.
Di-Stri continued to follow you around, even when Jake was there. When you and Jake were together, whether you were trying to entertain the twins or not, Di-Stri clung to your leg, eyeing Jake warily. He didn't start opening up to Jake until one time when he brought presents. He brought Di-Stri a wooden puppet, one with strings that the puppeteer could use to control the limbs and the head. He tried to show your son how to use it. He wasn't very good. But Di-Stri watched with awe and eagerly took the puppet from him. After that, he wasn't so cautious around Jake anymore.
They've even started calling him uncle Jake.
He's been gone for about three weeks when he returns again.
You're sitting in your study, working on some reports from your fief's farms. Di-Stri is sitting in your lap, his face buried against your chest and his tiny fists hold onto your tunic. Your right arm is wrapped around him, holding him close. His body moves with the rhythmic breath of sleep. Your left hand idly taps your quill against your desk while you read, occasionally scribbling notes.
You hear the servants rapid footsteps before the quick knocks sound at your door.
"Come in." You call out, not bothering to look up from your work. The door's pushed open and a servant boy pokes his head in. He's the son of your cook if you remember correctly, he's also who they often use to send you messages.
"Sir English has been spotted near the forest's edge, milord."
You sigh and set down your quill. "Thank you, I'll be out to greet him shortly." You say waving the boy off. He nods and disappears from your doorway. You gently shake the boy on your lap. "Hey, kid. Rise and shine, we got a visitor."
He lifts his head and rubs at his eyes before looking up at you and blinking slowly. You realize he probably wasn't as asleep as you thought he was. "Uncle Jake?" He asks, perhaps a little hopefully. He's also gotten used to Jake's frequent visits and knows when it's about time he shows up. Or he just knows when you're anticipating Jake's arrival. You suppose for someone who can read your subtle signs, it's obvious. You get a little antsy. You take walks along the battlements. You stare out the windows. You sigh a lot.
"Yup, let's go say hi." You stand up and lift Di-Stri to your shoulders. He settles himself with a leg on either side of your head, your hands holding them just in case. His hands rest in your hair. "Ready?" You ask, tilting your head a little to glance up at him.
His hands grip your hair just a little bit tighter and he bends down, his forearms gripping your head. He looks straight ahead with a small frown of concentration on his lips. "A Strider is always ready." He recites, his voice as serious as he can make it at three years old.
You smirk. "Damn straight. Hold on." You feel his hands tighten ever so slightly. You give him a couple of seconds to ready himself before flash stepping out of the room, down the hall, down the steps, and out the door. You stop just outside and glance up at your son. "You okay?"
His grip loosens and he nods. He may be learning to flash step younger than either you or Dave, but he's still young. He's not as fast as you. Not by a long shot. Sometimes he still gets dizzy when flash stepping with you, but he's getting better. When you're sure he's not going to vomit in your hair, you let your gaze sweep over the field your castle is situated in.
Your eyes settle on a horse approaching at a steady walk. The figure on its back sways side to side with the horse's movement. His dark hair is windswept back and his emerald eyes are alight in the sun. When he spots you, a grin spreads across his lips.
"Ho there! Strider!" He calls out, waving enthusiastically.
You can't help it. You grin. A wide, face splitting grin. Tension that you hadn't realized was there melts away. As always when you see him, your heart skips a beat before pounding wildly. Your stomach does little flips and you can't believe you still react like a love struck teenager. You're a man of thirty-eight and a father of three children, you shouldn't be nearly losing your shit over seeing the man you've been helplessly in love with since you were a squire. You should be used to it by now. But every time you think you're used to it, you see him again and your heart is reminded how much you love him.
"Hey, English." You say when he's within earshot. He pulls his horse up next to you and without really thinking, you reach out and place a hand on his thigh. "Nice to know you haven't gotten mauled by a wild beast or shot your own foot."
He rolls his eyes. "Goodness, Strider, do you really think I'm so foolish to let either of those things happen?"
You wrangle back your smile and look up at him gravely. "Yes. Yes, I do. I've witnessed your foolishness first hand." You give his thigh a light squeeze and he grins.
"Well rest assured I have not harmed myself in any significant manner since my last visit." He turns his attention to the child perched on your shoulders. "Gadzooks! Di-Stri, I believe you've grown since I last saw you."
You feel rather than see your son shake his head. "No, I'm still small." You can also hear the frown in his voice.
You watch as Jake reaches out to him, presumably to pat his shoulder or head. "Now, now, small but still bigger. You're a growing boy."
Your eyes fall to the hand that's resting on Jake's thigh and you smile. He hasn't bothered to remove it. Over the past few months, though you haven't been actively pushing your romantic feelings at Jake, you have been subtly pushing his physical boundaries. You sit a little closer to him. You touch him more than you normally would. Subtle, intimate touches that say more than words. Even though you doubt he understands the meaning behind your pseudo-flirtatious actions, he's never stopped you.
"You're going to be as big as your father one day." He says, removing his hand to offer up a fist to your son.
"I'm gonna be bigger!" Di-Stri bumps his tiny knuckles against Jake's.
Jake laughs. "Atta boy! Now if you Striders don't mind, I'm going to hand over my horse to the stable boys."
You step back as Jake taps his horse's sides, urging the beast over to the stables. The stable boys meet him halfway there and Jake dismounts, handing the reins over. You're watching him, possibly admiring his backside, which is why you notice something's wrong. He's favoring his right leg, the one you weren't touching. He turns and walks back to you. He's not quite able to hide his limp.
"Jake." You say, your voice calm but extremely serious. You level a look at him.
"Yes, Strider?" He asks innocently, stopping in front of you.
"I thought you said you didn't hurt yourself."
"I said I hadn't hurt myself in any significant manner."
"What did you do?"
He waves you off. Literally waves. With both hands. Like he's trying to brush a fly away. "It was nothing, mate! No need to worry yourself!" He's trying to laugh it off. You don't plan on letting him.
"Jake." You say gravely. "I'm going to count to three." Di-Stri stiffens on his perch on your shoulders.
Jake sighs, his hands dropping down to his sides. He shakes his head. "Come now, mate. Do you really think that'll work on me?"
"One." You say, raising a hand and lifting one finger for emphasis.
Di-Stri sits up straight. Jake chuckles, putting his hands on his hips. "Dirk, this is ridiculous!"
"Twooooo." You say, drawing out the syllable and lifting a second finger. You raise an eyebrow, daring him to disobey you.
Di-Stri's fingers grip your hair. "Jaaaaake…" He whines softly. Jake's smile falters and he starts too look a little nervous.
"I got kicked by my horse!" He blurts out. You're kind of surprised your fatherly intimidation method worked. Di-Stri relaxes with a sigh. He doesn't know what happens after you get to three. Neither do you. You've never had to worry about it.
"Explain." You say.
Jake sighs, looking away as he scratches the back of his neck. "The beast was a little annoyed with me, I suppose. I was walking around it and the damn thing kicked me." You're actually not all that surprised. Jake didn't often think about the comfort of his stead, thus had a tendency to annoy them more than anything. "It's nothing but a bruise, but it hurts like the dickens. So if you don't mind, may we move inside so I can rest?"
You nod and lead the way back to your castle. Di-Stri continues to ride on your shoulders. Your servants have long since gotten used to Jake's visits. They know to bring his saddle bags up to his rooms without you having to say anything. You lead Jake to your favorite and most comfortable sitting room. Jake immediately collapses on the couch, resting his injured leg.
You spend the next hour or so just talking. He fills you in with everything he's done since his last visit. He sees you so frequently now that he's stopped writing letters. You don't mind. You prefer this anyway. Di-Stri sits on your lap while he talks, but soon slips down to the floor to play with some of the toys he keeps in the room.
After a while, you call in a servant to tell the nanny to bring the twins, and to also get some tea from the kitchens. Both arrive shortly after. The tea comes on a silver platter with a plate of sweet pastries. The twins arrive in the nanny's arms, squealing when they see Jake. The two of you move to the floor to play with them. Jake lays on his stomach. Di-Stri and David settle down in front of him, Di-Stri playing with his puppets while David plays with some blocks. Roxy sits in your lap, playing with two dolls.
You fill Jake in with everything he's missed. It's not much in terms of your fief. But you have quite a few stories about your kids. You know your stories have always been boring in comparison to his. And while he tells you about his travels, all you can talk about is your kids. But he doesn't seem to mind and he never complains. He just lays there, helping David stack blocks and knocking them down.
At one point Roxy crawls out of your lap and over to Jake, climbing onto his back. He laughs and talks to her, not that she says much back. She just kind of babbles, pulls at his hair and clothes, and rolls around on him. When she gets dangerously close to his leg, you see him wince, bracing himself for pain. You lean forward and quickly sweep her into your arms before she can throw her baby weight on his injury.
He sighs in relief and smiles up at you. "Thanks mate."
You smirk. "Yeah, no problem. Next time don't hurt yourself." You twist so your back is to him and then lay down, resting your head on his shoulder and upper back, settling Roxy down on your chest. You entertain her by dangling her dolls in front of her. She smiles and giggles reaching for them with groping hands. "But seriously, don't hurt yourself." You say, your voice a lot softer, a little more vulnerable.
"Don't worry mate, I won't." He tilts his head back so it nudges the side of yours. "I'm not going anywhere." He says it with less cheerfulness than usual, and a lot more sincerity. You smile because you know he means it. He stacks up some blocks and David knocks them down, giggling. Di-Stri's mumbling to himself, bouncing two puppets in front of him. He's obviously making them talk and you're not going to say anything to stop him. You like seeing him doing happy kid things as opposed to trying to act older.
"Take care of yourself out there." You say, your voice barely above a mumble. You take strength in the fact that he can't see your face. "I don't want to lose you."
For a moment you think that maybe he didn't hear you. Then you feel, rather than hear, him chuckle. His chest shakes slightly. When he speaks, you can hear the amusement in his voice. "Devilfucking dickens, Strider! Are you becoming a sap on me in your old age?"
He expects you to roll your eyes and deny everything. He expects you to turn it into a joke and let it go. He expects you to brush it off like it never crossed your lips. Honestly, you do too. But when you open your mouth to shoot off some smart ass comment, what comes out is completely different. "Yeah, I guess I am. I just worry about you when I can't be there to save your ass."
Well, there's honesty in it's finest, unironic form. Little Roxy's slid off your chest to crawl over to Di-Stri and David, leaving you feeling extremely vulnerable without your baby shield. At first you don't think Jake's going to say anything. You realize too late that he's waiting for Roxy to get a safe distance away.
Jake suddenly twists under you, rolling onto his back. He wraps his arms around your chest and then continues his roll, flinging you over him and onto your stomach on his other side. A surprised and very embarrassing squeal leaves your lips. He rolls half on top of you. "Jake, what the fuck?!" You say, trying to twist to look at him. He holds you still with his arms around your chest.
"You are absolutely adorable, Strider." Warmth rushes to your cheeks and you're suddenly very glad you couldn't turn around to face him. His arms loosen, and just when you think he may be letting you
go, his hands find your sides and his fingers dig in. You let out a surprised squeak and immediately try to struggle.
"Oh- my god… What the f-…Jake, stop! Oh my FUCK! STOP!" Your pleas come out between ragged breaths and far too animated, and completely unintentional laughs. He continues to tickle you, using his weight on your back to keep you down. He's laughing above you and you think maybe your kids might be laughing, but your eyes are squeezed shut as you struggle. Your cheeks hurt with how much your smiling against your will. You start to kick your legs, not really thinking about anything other than escape, and end up kicking Jake's injury.
His laughter stops abruptly and he hisses, immediately pushing away from you and rolling onto his back. His hands hover over his bruised thigh.
"Oh shit." You push yourself up on your elbows and crawl over to him. You hover over him worriedly. "Shit, are you okay? I didn't mean to, I just-"
He laughs weakly and lifts a hand to pat you on the cheek. "Don't worry about it, Strider. I suppose I had that one coming." He's looking up at you with those deeply green eyes of his. It would take nothing to lower your lips to his. "You should laugh more, mate." He says softly, like it wasn't actually meant for you to hear. His thumb gently strokes your cheekbone.
You don't realize you were absentmindedly lowering your head until Di-Stri's voice cuts through your daze. "Tickle daddy!"
You look up sharply to see all three of your kids crawling toward you. Using them as an excuse to back out of that almost awkward moment, you begin a tickle fight that you inevitably end up winning.
You do your best not to dwell on the fact that you nearly lost your cool and kissed Jake.
You fail miserably and end up staring at his lips all through dinner.
==> Be Jake English
At thirty-five, you're still unmarried, still the royal ambassador, still the best of friends with Dirk Strider, and currently spending every moment you can spare visiting him.
You've worried about him for years, being alone and ruling his fief. But he never showed any signs of being unhappy. And so, even though ruling a fief wasn't something you wanted to do, you were happy for him. You started to feel bad after Rose and lady Lalonde moved into the castle after Rose's engagement announcement. He was alone. Really alone. With no family or anything to keep him company. Still you went about your business, telling yourself you would do something to help only if he asked for it.
When he got married, you couldn't say you didn't see it coming. He and lady Roxy had shown signs of fondness for years. You were happy for him. You really were. And then you visited for the first time and another emotion happened. You're not sure what it was. You're still not. You just know it curled in your gut uncomfortably and growled every time you saw the way he smiled at her. After that, your visits became infrequent. You wanted to avoid that uncomfortable feeling. It made you unhappy in your best friend's presence, and you never wanted to be unhappy around him. Besides, he didn't need you around as often. He had someone else to make him smile. He didn't… need you like he used to.
But you continued to send him letters, perhaps even more now. You told him all about all of your adventures and reveled in all the words he sent back. Your chest never failed to fill with warmth when one of his letters was delivered to you.
You took this time to explore Alternia. With the new and fragile peace, you happily offered your ambassador services. You met many of the Alternians and befriended several. One was a charming young lady by the name of Aranea. You spent a lot of time with her, visiting every time you were in Alternia.
Then Dirk's letter came about Roxy's death and you dropped everything to rush to his side. You pushed your horse as hard as you couldn't without killing the beast and you even forgot to eat. It had been a while since you'd seen him cry, but you held him like you did when he was fourteen and lost his father. As he cried in your arms, you promised yourself you would never let him be alone again.
So you finished up some important business and proceeded to visit him for a month, every other month. The months you spent at his home, with him and his children, were the happiest months you've had in years. You forgot how much you enjoyed spending time with Dirk for days on end. You forgot how easily the two of you fit together. You missed the days when you were pages and boys and didn't have to worry about the world.
The months you spent away, you looked forward to returning. You made the most out of your travels, but they didn't hold the appeal they used to. You found yourself wishing that your best friend was at your side to enjoy your adventures with you. You found yourself wishing you were in his sitting room, rolling on the floor with the twins while he taught his son how to use the string puppet you got him. By the time you returned, you were a bundled ball of anticipation. Seeing his welcoming smile always relaxed any tension you hadn't realized your body had been holding.
Ever since you first met, Dirk Strider has been a very important person in your life. Now you realize he is the most important. You would do anything to keep him from crying. To keep him from feeling lonely. You would do anything for his kids. They easily crawled into your heart and made a home there. Di-Stri already reminds you of a young Dirk and it never fails to make you smile. You want to protect him. You want to protect all of them. You want to see him smile more.
And during your current visit, when the two of you were laying on the floor with the kids and he broke his usual indifference to show you how much he cared about you, your resolve to protect him and protect his smile strengthened. He's your best friend. You know everything about him and you know about all his struggles. He, more than anyone you've ever known, deserves to be happy.
You're…not entirely sure why your heart was hammering in your chest when his face was so close. Your stomach was twisting strangely, but it wasn't the same uncomfortable feeling you had when you visited him and Roxy. You must have forgotten what being close to him felt like.
During dinner, you're ravenous. You…may have forgotten to eat lunch that day in your haste to get to the Strider household. As always on the first night of your visits, the cooks serve a plethora of meats, your favorite. There's also plenty of meat pastries, Dirk's favorite, and freshly baked bread. Di-Stri eats at the table with you. The twins are being fed mushy baby food by the nanny in the kitchen. Several servants actually eat at the table with you. Quite a while ago, Dirk decided to go against the usual customs and invite his help to eat with him. He told you once that they serve him and he's grateful to them, so they might as well eat with him. It's a waste to eat by himself. Roxy didn't mind this custom when she entered his household.
Conversation is low while you eat. You're completely observed in your food, but occasionally you glance up to find Dirk staring at you. As soon as you look at him, he looks away. You don't think much of it and continue to eat.
Afterward, the two of you take a walk outside while the kids get cleaned up. You return to your usual sitting room to find them waiting for you. You play with them some more and entrance Di-Stri with tales of your travels. When they get tired, Dirk goes to put them to bed and you follow. You wait in the doorway while he sings them lullabies.
You've heard him hum before, but never sing. He doesn't carry a tune as well as some, but you like the sound of his voice. You know the lullabies he sings are Roxy's. He uses them to keep a piece of her alive. He used to not be able to sing them without letting out a few silent tears. Now all he does is smile sadly, but contently. You just smile from the doorway until he's done. He closes the door softly behind him and you both walk down the hallway.
You place a comforting hand on his shoulder and if you're not mistake, he leans into your touch just a little bit.
"Care for a drink?" He asks, a strange note in your voice that you can't place.
So instead you grin. "Of course, mate."
A couple of hour and several cups of wine later, the two of you are taking a stroll along the battlements of the castle. The night is clear and the air is cool on your warmed cheeks. The pain in your leg, which was a lot more than you had let on, no longer feels like a shock threw your bone with ever step. It's now much more tolerable ache. It's a lot easier to keep your limp to a minimum now that you can't feel it as much.
That doesn't stop Dirk from noticing, of course. He's wrapped an arm around your waist, forcing yours around his shoulder. He supports some of your weight and you don't mind leaning against him. He's warm and comfortable. He always has been.
At some point he stops and you stop with him. He leans back against the hip high wall of the battlement and you follow suit. His arm remains around your waist. You lean into him, settling all your weight on your uninjured leg. It feels infinitely better and you sigh in relief, resting your head on his shoulder. You close your eyes, but the world starts to spin and you're forced to open them again. Tilting your head, you look up at Dirk.
His head is tilted back and he's gazing up at the stars. You take a peek, and yeah sure, the night sky is pretty and all, but you'd much rather look at him. And so you do. Even when you were boys, he was good looking. He's grown up a lot since then, but if anything he's gotten even more breath taking. The angles of his face are highlighted by the moon's soft glow. You can still see the signs of age, the signs of his struggle through life in every line on his face, but he carries it well. He carries it proudly. Every misfortune has made him stronger and you admire him for that. You've always admired him. You still find it hard to believe this astounding man has bothered to put up with you for this many years. You consider yourself lucky to be tucked against his side like this. To be close enough to feel his warm. He smells familiar and he makes you feel safe.
And when he turns his head to look at you, you realize just how gorgeous he is. The wine in your system has blurred the edges of your vision. You can only see what you concentrate on and right now that's his eyes. His amazing eyes, the colors of embers and tree sap.
The strange feeling is welling up again. Your heart is hammering in your chest and you feel dizzy. Surely that's the alcohol? Your stomach is doing flips and twists and you can't possibly be nauseous because you haven't had THAT much wine. And still Dirk just stares at you. He stares and he stares and you can't read what's in his eyes and you can usually ALWAYS tell what's in his eyes. You don't know what he wants and you can't find the words to voice your questions.
But maybe…you do…know what he wants… or maybe it's what you want… or maybe it's the alcohol…or maybe you've gone insane.
What you DO know is that it seems like a really, really good idea right about now.
You lift your free hand to his face, cupping his cheek like you did earlier. His skin is soft and warm. He closes his eyes and leans into your palm. Without his eyes to keep you captive, you gaze slides lower, settling on his lips. Yes. This is a really, really good idea.
Your hand slips behind his head and your fingers move through his hair. It's softer than you would imagine. His eyes open halfway, but they can't distract you from your new focus. Your grip tightens and you tug his head forward. He doesn't give you any sign of resistance. You can't judge distance very well. You end up bumping noses, your lips finding his cheek. You can fix this though. You slide you lips lower until you feel his. They're soft and wonderful and fit perfectly against yours.
You can't see him anymore because you've closed your eyes. But you don't need to. You can feel him. You feel his breath hitch. You can feel his heart hammering in his chest. His lips move against yours. They part and you can feel his breath, hot and smelling of wine. His other arm finds your waist and he turns and suddenly you're pressed against his chest. You feel his tongue against your lips and you obediently open your mouth. He explores and you respond as best you can. Your arms wrap around his neck and you cling to him for support as he kisses you and you kiss him.
You honestly can't remember a kiss that's ever felt so nice.
Oh wait. Yes you can. Twenty years ago, when you were fifteen and you kissed Dirk under the mistletoe.
Dirk pulls away first and you whine, trying to go up on your toes to reach his lips again. But you put too much strain on your leg and pain shoots through you. You end up wincing and falling back onto your uninjured leg.
Before you know what's happening, Dirk's swept you up into his arms. He cradles you against his chest, an arm around your back and one under your knees. You hadn't realized he was so strong. Sure, you've noticed his body's build before. And you recognized his sword wielding strength. But you never thought he'd be able to pick you up so easily. It's… kind of nice. You feel secure. Safe.
You try to find words, but he's already walking. So you let him walk. You nuzzle into his chest and close your eyes. The world isn't spinning as much as it was before. You focus on the steady, even strides that are carrying you somewhere. You don't care where.
He shifts you in his arms in order to open a door, then readjusts his hold. You hear him kick the door shut. You don't open your eyes until you feel yourself being lowered onto a bed. You look around the room only to realize it's not the room you usually say in. The blankets you're laying on smell like Dirk. The creepy grinning puppet he calls lil Cal is resting on the dresser next to the bed. This is Dirk's room. Dirk's bed.
You look back to him and he's already stripped off his shirt. He's sitting on the edge of the bed, removing his boots. You're quick to do the same. You manage to push your boots off but struggle and get caught up in the material of your tunic. You hear him laugh and then there are hands helping you through it. Your shirt is tossed to the floor and Dirk is leaning over you. He's smiling and your stomach flips at the sight of it.
Without dwelling too much on it, you reach up and wrap your arms around his neck, pulling him down to the bed beside you. Your lips find his, eager to kiss him again. He holds you close. He kisses your lips, your cheeks, your chin, your jaw. He layers kisses all over your face and you can't help but smile. You nuzzle into his neck, letting loose a content sigh. He's so comfortable. He's always been comfortable. How many restless nights could have been made better if you had spent them in his arms?
He presses a soft kiss to your forehead before resting his head on a pillow. You feel sleep tugging at you and you give in. You can hear the steady breathing of Dirk doing the same. You're so comfortable, so content. You wonder why you never slept with him more. You wonder why you never kissed him more. You wonder why you ever thought being without him was a good idea.
You fall asleep with the feel of his arms around you and the sound of his soft breath in your ear.
Chapter 9: Emotions
It's been a while since I wrote for this, so if it sounds off or weird, I'm sorry. I tried. Just a couple more chapters until this story is over.
==> Be Jake English
At thirty-five, you thought you were immune to hangovers. You were wrong.
You wake to the sun warming your back and a pounding behind your eyes. You groan and bury your head deeper into the pillows. It takes you a moment to realize the pillows smell like Dirk, and yet another moment to remember you didn't fall asleep in your usual bed. Memories of the night before come flooding back. Dirk. Dirk, Dirk, Dirk. Dirk's laugh. Dirk's smile. Dirk's face. Dirk's eyes. Dirk's lips. Dirk's kiss. Your memories are fuzzy with the effects of alcohol, but you can't deny what happened: you kissed your best friend.
And he kissed you back.
Speaking of your best friend, the bed feels strangely empty. You roll over and throw an arm over your face, peeking out from the shadows. Sure enough, you're alone. And judging from the lack of warmth in the spot next to you, you've been alone for a while. You groan again and roll your face into the pillows.
You're bombarded with emotions, some of which are easier to identify than others. Shame seems to be the most prevalent, followed closely by embarrassment, moping self-pity, and anxiety. You hate yourself for being so stupid. You're scared you ruined your friendship. You're annoyed with yourself for giving into childish urges. You're worried Dirk is mad at you. But beneath it all, there's a flutter of giddiness at the fact that he kissed you back. He brought you to his bed. He didn't once resist your foolish advances. More than that, there's hope that he'll forgive you for being an ass and you both can move past this.
Yes, you must have faith in your best friend and hope that your future won't be tainted. Surely he'll understand that men can't be held fully responsible for their actions while under the influence of the drink?
You reluctantly push yourself up and scoot to the edge of the bed. With your feet on the cold stone floor, you idly rub the sleep from your eyes. Unfortunately it does little to rub the ache away. Leaning back on your hands, you take a moment to look around Dirk's room. You don't think you've ever been in here before. Various puppets lay scatter around the room, on chairs, the floor, the desk, his dresser. There are bits of him here and there. Clothes, family portraits, mementoes. The essence of your best friend has seeped so deeply into this room. You feel comfortable and safe.
Then a flash of pink catches your eye.
A knitted pink scarf hangs from where it's been wrapped around one of the bed's posts. It's a blaring reminder that for three years, this room also belonged to Roxy. She was here. She slept in this bed. She felt the comfort of Dirk in every breath she took. That vaguely familiar, uncomfortable feeling returns to your gut. You don't like it. You don't like that you feel this way.
You look away and your eyes catch on something else: the wooden puppet you got Dirk for yuletide all those years ago, when you were still just squires. It's sitting on his dresser, next to the glassy-eyed lil Cal. Despite being old and worn, it still looks new, not a speck of dust to be seen. A small smile slowly curves your lips. He still treasures that silly little gift. Even after all these years.
The uncomfortable knot disappears as quickly as it had come. You can't bring yourself to resent Roxy's presence in Dirk's life. She made him happy, especially when you weren't there to do it yourself. She gave him children, whom you care for deeply. Not to mention she was a bright, cheerful, beautiful woman. You couldn't have picked a better woman to share in Dirk's life. It nearly tore you apart to see him so broken after her death. You've already decided to preserve his happiness and his smile, in anyway you can. You only hope you haven't ruined it with your drunken urges.
You know you have to go find Dirk. Your stomach twists with anticipation and worry. You're not sure how to approach the topic of last night. You sigh loudly, dramatically even, and push yourself to your feet.
Pain shoots through your leg and you cry out in surprise before falling back on the bed.
Right. Your leg. You had nearly forgotten about that. Now not only does your head hurt, but your leg is throbbing like the dickens!
You stand again, slowly this time, and pick your shirt off the floor. You pull it over your head and belt it at your waist. You tug your boots on next and soon enough, you're ready to go. You limp to the door and peek out into the hallway. It's empty, which is good. You're not sure what the servants would say if they saw you sneaking out of their master's rooms. You make your way to the kitchens. Because you're hungry. Certainly not because you're avoiding finding your best friend. No, no, not that.
By the time your belly is full of your morning meal, the sun is high in the sky. You finally start on your venture to find Dirk, but after talking to a few servants, you learn that he's gone on a ride. When they find that you didn't go with him, you're given several curious looks. You simply shrug, smile, and say that you accidentally slept in. A little too much wine.
You're a little relieved to put off your confrontation, but unfortunately now you have nothing to do. During your visits with Dirk, you're both usually attached at the hip. Where he goes, you go. Now he's gone gallivanting off and left you to your own devices. You could sit and wait, but you've never been one to enjoy staying idle.
So after pacing the perimeter of the castle and nearly all the corridors, you decide that you have little to no patience. As much as you dread a confrontation, it's probably best that you go find Dirk. Honestly you're not even sure why you're calling it a confrontation. This is Dirk! Your best friend since you were ten! A little drunken foolishness won't change that. He certainly won't be mad about it. The two of you have been through so much. This doesn't even qualify as a bump in the road. It's not even a rock. Barely a pebble. Yes, everything will be fine.
You steal your nerves with your newfound confidence and go to the stables. After your horse is ready to go and you've mounted up, you ask the stable boys in what direction Lord Strider went. They point and you nod, thanking them with a cheerful smile and a small salute. You take off at a mild gallop, following the worn path across the fields and into the woods.
You've explored the Strider lands plenty of times, both with and without Dirk. You know these woods like the back of your hand. You follow the main paths and trails, looking for any sign that your friend had been this way. You find a few. Fresh horse hoof prints in the mud. A scrap of orange thread, like he hadn't been paying attention and a branch reached out to pull it from his tunic. Occasionally you find a symbol carved into a tree. It's a simple symbol. Just two parallel scrapes into the bark. But you recognize it. You and Dirk came up with this code years ago, when you were kids. If one went off without the other, you would occasionally carve this symbol into trees. That way if anything happened, you'd be easier to track. You still do this out of habit during your travels. You had no idea Dirk did, too.
A warm fluttering happens in your chest as you run your fingers across the cuts in the wood. Finding him should be easier than you expected.
You follow the trail to the nearby town. The streets are busy with the day to day hustle and bustle of town life. You slow your horse to a casual walk and steer your way through the streets. You ask around, starting with the officials making their patrols, and then moving onto store owners and pedestrians. You ask them if they've seen Lord Strider. Has he been through this part of town? Where was he headed? You saw him go this way, you say?
Most of them know you. Not only as the heir's cousin and the royal ambassador, but as a close friend of Lord Strider. You've visited this town often with him, seeing as it's the closest to his home. The people are friendly and, unlike many of the fiefs you've visited in your travels, they are very fond of the Strider family. Dirk has been good to them, as his father was before him. Sure, you enjoy the recognition of who you are and your ranking in the kingdom, but here you're more proud of the fact that your best friend is one of the best men you know.
Your investigations eventually lead you to a local flower stand in the market. Once the woman working confirms that she sold flowers to the Lord earlier that day, you realize where he went. An urgency tightens your chest and it becomes hard to breathe. You thank the woman with a strained smile and turn your horse around. The cheerful faces that crowd the streets are now an obstacle, restricting your movement and keeping you from gaining the speed you crave. When you finally break free, you kick your horse into a run and head straight back for the Strider castle.
You hunch low over your steed's neck, gripping the reigns tight enough to turn your fingers numb. The wind whips and pulls at your hair, your eyes straining to stay open. You break through the trees and head across the field that surrounds the Strider home. But instead of going to the castle, you pass it, heading along a thick dirt path and through a tunnel of trees. Your destination isn't far. The trees hide it from the castle's view, but in the winter when the leaves fall, you can barely make out the shapes of the headstones.
Sure enough, you spot a familiar horse tied to the fence and a familiar head of blonde hair across the Strider family graveyard. You slow your horse to a stop and practically throw yourself from its back in your hurry to dismount. Pain shoots through your leg when you land and you barely manage to hold back a grunt, clenching your teeth instead. You tie your horse's reigns to the fence and enter the graveyard on foot. Your heart is pounding in your chest and your gut is twisted tighter than a knot. You want to rush to his side, but the pain in your leg prevents you from doing much more than limping across the grass at a pace that is far too slow for your patience.
You remember being here when they buried Roxy. You remember Dirk's face as he tried to be strong, but couldn't hold back the few silent tears that escaped. You remember the way he and young Di-Stri clung to each other. During every one of your visits since, you and Dirk have made it a tradition to pick up flowers and bring them to Roxy's grave. Dirk was reluctant at first, but you insisted. While you're there, you always spend a moment of silence at his father's grave as well. Eventually he came to appreciate the visits and the tears stopped. You've sat with him for hours while he tells Roxy and his father all about Di-Stri and the twins. You just sit close and give him silent comfort. As you leave, he always gives your hand a smalls squeeze, telling you more than words how grateful he is.
He's never come to the graveyard alone.
He doesn't turn around as you approach, despite the fact that you are not at all silent. He's standing in front of Roxy's grave, his head bowed as he stares at her headstone. There's a bouquet of pink flowers next to it.
"Greetings, old chap! Ran off without me this morning, eh? Gave me quite a fright!" You say as you come to a stop beside him. You do your best to sound cheerful, but you can tell your smile is strained. You can't quite hide your worry. You rest a hand on his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly.
He tilts his head to glance at you. His expression isn't one you expected. His face is void of pain or sadness. His body is relaxed and there's peace in his eyes. Contentment. The corner of his lips rises into a small smile before he looks away.
"Yeah, sorry about that." He says, resting one of his hands atop your own, lightly squeezing your own digits.
"What're you doing out here, mate?" You ask softly, twining your fingers with his.
He's silent for a moment before responding. When he does, he sounds wistful. "Just remembering a promise I made to Roxy."
You cock your head to the side and raise both eyebrows. Dirk tells you everything, and yet you've never heard of a promise he made. "And what would that be, Strider?"
He turns to look at you again. His brilliant orange eyes search your face and his lips curve into another small smile. "Let's go back. I asked the cooks the prepare some meat pies for lunch. Lamb, deer, and pheasant." One blonde eyebrow goes up and his lips curl into a smirk. "I know how you can't resist my meat, English."
You throw your head back a laugh. "A man after my own heart!" You release his fingers and pat his shoulder. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were trying to woo me, Strider!"
He doesn't laugh as you thought he might, but his smile doesn't fade. Instead he just shakes his head and heads back to where you both tied up your horses. The ride back to the Strider castle is a short one, spent mostly in comfortable silence. Whenever you glance over at Dirk, he's staring straight ahead with that wistful, yet strangely determined expression.
"Dirk," you say as you near the stables. From the way he jerks slightly and blinks at you, you know you've just startled him out of his thoughts. He looks at you questioningly. "You do realize I'm not going to drop the subject simply for a couple bites of delicious meat pies, don't you?"
His smile actually shows his teeth and he chuckles. "Yeah, I know."
You nod and dismount. "Good." You hand your reigns to a stableboy. "Now get your rump off that horse and hurry it up! I'm starving!"
You get a tray of meat pies and a couple cups of mead and retire to Dirk's study. He sits behind his desk and riffles through papers and reports, slowly working his way through his lunch. You sit on the edge of his desk, eating while you watch him. He really is a good lord. His fief is the most profitable, well managed in the kingdom. You absolutely despise paperwork, sitting at desks, and the boring humdrum of royal life, but Dirk is good at what he does.
"So, Strider…" You say when you've finished eating. You place your hands on the edge of the desk on either side of you and idly kick your feet in the air. You look at him over your shoulder. "About this mystery promise that has you in such a tissy…"
"I am not in a tissy." He says, looking up at you. His lips are curved into a slight frown. You grin at him a wait. You expect him to continue but he doesn't.
"But it does have you out of sorts. Why don't you tell me? You know you can tell me anything, old chap."
Dirk sighs and rests his elbows on the desk, rubbing his eyes with both hands. "I was hoping to put this off for a little while longer."
"No such luck, my good friend." You say with a smug grin.
Dirk sighs and pushes himself to his feet. His chair scrapes across the floor. You follow his movements as he walks around the desk, his steps slow and measured. You're not really sure what he's up to, but he has that determined look on his face again. All the wistfulness is gone, replaced by a hardened expression you don't recognize.
How…strange. You've never been unable to read his expressions before. No mater how blank he made his face, you could always read him easily. But now…he's actually managed to hide his emotions from you.
Your grin fades as he comes to a stop in front of you. His arms are folded over his chest and he stares at you with unreadable eyes. It's strange and foreign and suddenly you're very anxious. Your feet stop swinging and you stare back. "Soooo…" You say, drawing out the word. "What was this promise that you--"
"Why did you kiss me?"
You blink in surprise, your mouth hanging open, the rest of your sentence unformed. Did he…? He just…?
"Why did you kiss me?" His mask is unflinching.
"Dirk, I don't--"
"Why. Did. You. Kiss. Me?" This time his voice is louder and he speaks slowly, emphasizing each word. You flinch and look away, staring at a spot on your floor. You should have known he'd be upset. His wife recently died and you're acting like a drunken child! You would hate you too.
"I…I don't know…" You say, but you can barely hear it. You know he can.
He moves and you flinch, expecting him to either hit you or walk away. You don't like either option. Fortunately, he does neither. His arms unfold and he leans down. You're not sure what's happening until he's kneeling in front of you. Right in your line of sight. He rests his hands on your knees and you warily meet his eyes.
"Jake…" He says quietly, his expression softening. He looks almost…vulnerable. His hands are warm, melting some of the tension in your body, but you can't quiet stop the uneasy feeling twisting your gut. "This is important. I need you to think about and answer me honestly."
You swallow past the lump in your throat and nod. But before you have opportunity to say anything else, there's a knock at the door. You practically leap off the desk, while Dirk slowly stands.
"Come in." He calls, stepping away from you. You feel the distance tugging at your chest. The door swings open and Di-Stri comes sprinting into the room and hurls himself at his father. Dirk's serious expression dissolves into a smile as he bends down to catch his son and swing him up into his arms.
"Daddy! Uncle Jake! I had a dream!" Di-Stri rambles on, telling you both about his extravagant dream, while you and Dirk humor him with nods and smiles. Dirk moves back to his desk chair, settling his son on his lap. You take one of the seats across the desk and watch them with curious eyes.
Dirk's question tugs at your thoughts. Your automatic response had been to blame it on the alcohol. Surely it had robbed you of your senses and he could accept that. But something about his face, his voice, the vulnerability he was showing, made you pause. Was it really just the alcohol? You're…not as sure as you were this morning.
You watch Dirk interact with his son. The affection in his expression is enough to make you smile. Di-Stri is a spitting image of his father and you want nothing more to protect this family and their happiness. But you already knew this. You decided it with the upmost sincerity the day before, when you were all in the sitting room, laying on the floor. When you had launched into a tickle attack on Dirk, and he ended up hovering above you. He had been so close then. You enjoy it when he's that close. Close enough to feel his warmth and his breath, to make out each and every freckle on his nose and cheeks, to see the lines of color in his orange eyes.
You had been overwhelmed with the nearness of him last night atop the battlements. His lips had looked so soft and inviting. The kiss had been perfect, and every one after that was even more so. His body had felt so right against yours. His presence next to you while you slept had been so comforting. You had been so crushed to find him missing from your side when you woke up.
If you could have it your way, he'd always be at your side. In sleep, during meals, while traveling. Your best friend is the best company you could ever ask for. His quick wit is just as pleasant in conversations as it is for saving your skin from danger. He knows you better than anyone, understands you, cares about you. And you know him better than anyone, understand him, care about him. He's been with you since you were young, and he's put up with you for all these years. No one could take his place. Ever. You want to take care of him, like he's always taken care of you. You want to make him happy, in every way you can. You want to stay by his side, more than you have been. You want him always with you, like when you were pages. Your time spent with him is the happiest you've been in years. You're not sure what you've been searching for in your travels, but you feel complete when you're with Dirk…
Your eyes widen and your fingers clutch at the arms of your chair. Realization knocks the wind right out of your lungs.
Oh…god…you're in love with your best friend.
You stand up so quickly that your chair wobbles and threatens to fall over. Both Dirk and Di-Stri turn to stare at you. All you can do is gap at them, wide-eyed and panicked. You should probably say something. Anything. Instead you turn on your heel and run, only to trip over your chair and stumble. You catch yourself before falling and hurry out of the room, the tips of your ears burning.
You run through the corridors, unsure of where you're going, just trying to get away. Pain shoots through your leg but you push past it. You need a place to think. A place to be alone. You end up in an open air corridor. You put your hands on the stone railing, looking down at the courtyard below. The wind plays with your hair and tunic, the fresh air cooling off your panic. You can do this. You can think. Just be rational. You're in love with your best friend.
You're in love with your best friend.
You're in love with Dirk.
You're in love with Dirk Strider.
You throw back your head and laugh. You laugh loud and long. A deep bellied laugh that refuses to stop. Goodness gracious! It seems so obvious now! How could you have been so blind to your own life and your own emotions?!
You're in love with your best friend, and you have been for a long time.
You're not sure when it started, when the shift happened from friendship to love. You've always cared about him, yes, but when did it become something more?
You've always been happiest when Dirk's around. You lost touch with a lot of your friends from your page days, but that never mattered because you still had Dirk. You never stopped writing letters because you couldn't stand the thought of not talking to him, despite being far apart. He's always been important to you. You've always admired him. You've always thought he was beautiful.
You think it might have been your first shared kiss under the mistletoe.
You think that might have been the day that these feelings stirred, even though you never recognized them for what they are. You just assumed this was how close friendship felt. You never realized it was because your close friendship was bordering on something more.
And then Dirk got married.
The nasty, dark feeling that clawed at your gut and tore at your heart at the sight of them together. It suddenly has a name: jealousy. You were jealous of Roxy. You didn't like how she was so close to Dirk. Your Dirk. You were jealous, but you were willing to let them be to make him happy. You convinced yourself it was because you wanted what Dirk had. A wife. A lover.
All your life you've been searching for something. Anything. You just didn't know what. You've been with several women in your travels, but you've never stayed. Never committed. Nothing felt right. The closest you ever got was that enchanting Alternian woman. You thought she might have been your Roxy. The lady to call your own. But it still never felt right. You couldn't bring yourself to settle down with her, no matter how much you enjoyed her company. Something was missing. Something was wrong.
Then you found out Roxy died and Dirk needed you. You left your lady fair without any hesitation. Later you returned and told her you probably wouldn't be visiting as often, or for the same purpose. She didn't seem surprised by this announcement. In fact, she wished you luck. You didn't understand what she meant at the time. Now you do.
Now you realize what you've been looking for was in Dirk all along. It's him. You want him. You need him. No one can replace him. No one comes close.
By the time he finds you, you've stopped laughing. You're calmer and there's contentment in your heart. You're at peace with yourself.
Your hands are still on the railing as you lean forward, your eyes focused on the distant sky. He comes to stand next to you and you glance over at him. He leans his hip against the railing and crosses his arms loosely over his chest.
"You alright?" He actually sounds concerned, maybe even a little worried. Others probably wouldn't be able to tell, but you can. Because you know him.
You turn to face him, keeping one hand on the railing and letting the other fall at your side. You do your best to keep your face calm and serious.
"Because I wanted to."
He blinks. "What?"
"Because I wanted to." You repeat, a smile slowly cracking your serious expression.
He stares at you, curious but cautious. "What are you talking about, English?" He asks slowly.
"The answer to your question." You can't hold it back anymore. A grin splits your face. "Because I wanted to."
You can tell the moment it clicks in his head, and you watch in amusement as a series of emotions pass over his face. He opens his mouth a few times, but says nothing. His eyebrows furrow and his nose crinkles. Your grin widens. You've officially left the famous Dirk Strider speechless.
"Jake…" He finally manages. You stop him before he can continue.
"Why did you kiss me back?"
He seems startled for a moment, but then a small smile cracks his lips. "Because I wanted to."
You take a step closer. "Then it looks like we're in agreement, mate."
"So it seems." He doesn't move, so you take another step. Your chests are mere inches apart and you have to tilt your head to look up at him. Your grin still hasn't faded. Dirk looks like he's fighting with himself.
"Now, now, my dear fellow, are you really going to make me do all the work?"
His lips twitch upward and his chest shakes with silent laughter. "Old habits are hard to break."
Without giving yourself time to think about it, you throw your arms around his neck, go up on your toes, and kiss him. He's not expecting it and stumbles backward. His arms wrap around your waist as he regains his balance. The kiss is sloppy and you end up laughing against his lips. You can feel him smiling against yours.
It feels so right.
When you lean back, he doesn't let go and neither do you.
"Are you sure?" He asks, his voice soft and breathy, hopeful but still terribly vulnerable.
"Of course I'm sure, Strider." You give his lips a soft peck. When you meet his eyes, you can see them glistening with unshed tears. Your smile softens. "How long have you been waiting, mate?"
His adam's apple bobs. "Twenty years." He whispers. You can hear the waver in his voice that he's trying to hide.
Your heart tightens. You've been so oblivious, to both yourself and the man you claim to know better than any other. Your vision blurs and you can feel your eyes and nose tickle with oncoming tears. Your arms tighten around his neck. "Sorry." Your voice cracks, but it doesn't matter because you're kissing him again. At this moment, nothing else matters other than the feel of Dirk against you.
You're not sure what you're going to tell his kids. You're not sure how this will affect your travels. You don't think you'll be able to leave his side after this. You've been apart for far too long already. A whole new world of troubles and obstacles has opened up, but you don't bother dwelling on them right now. Right now, at this moment, they don't matter.
You've never been happier.
==> Be Dirk Strider
Twenty years after you first kiss Jake English, you kiss him again. It's wet, salty, sloppy, and desperate. But it's the best kiss you've ever experienced.
Chapter 10: Goodbyes and Beginnings
The last chapter of the main story. There will be one bonus chapter after this.
==> Be Dirk Strider
At the age of thirty-nine, you've had your fair share of experiences.
You've lost your father and been forced to become the man of the house. You've looked after and raised your two younger siblings. You've ruled over your fief for many, many years. You've fallen in love and had your heart broken time and time again. You've been married and fallen in love again. You've become a father of three and had your heart ripped from your chest when your wife and died. You've had your heart restored when your best friend finally returned your feelings.
Needless to say, you've lived a lot and learned a lot. But you've never felt such a complex mix of emotions as you do right now.
For the past several hours, you've been in a carriage, heading for the capitol city and the castle that resides there. David is asleep on your lap and Di-Stri is curled up at your side, idly playing with one of his puppets. Your ass hurts from sitting still so long, but you don't care to move. Jake sits across from you, little Roxy on his lap. Her little fingers are curled into his tunic and he's idly playing with her hair.
You're going to miss them. You really are. They're your pride and joy. The knowledge that you'll soon be leaving them weighs heavily on your heart. Your gut twists unpleasantly and you feel ten years older.
Jake catches your gaze and holds it with his brilliant green eyes. The knot in your stomach relaxes as you're reminded why you're doing this. Jake gives you a little smile, a knowing upturn of the lips. The warmth in his gaze makes you feel eighteen again.
There's movement at your side as Di-Stri burrows further into your side. You wrap an arm around him and rest your hand atop his head, idly stroking his hair. He's only four, but he's been through so much. He's smart. He knows this extended stay at the castle means you're leaving him. You just have to keep reassuring him that it's not forever. You're not going to disappear like his momma did.
Guilt wells up. You feel incredibly guilty. You don't want to be the father who abandons his children. You don't want to lose the closeness you have with them. In a moment of panic, you nearly hop up from your seat to tell the driver to turn around.
Jake nudges your foot with his. You look at him again and your heart melts. You know he feels guilty too. He doesn't want to tear you away from your family anymore than you want to leave. But…you've had this conversation for the better half of the past year. You've already made your decision and a Strider is nothing if not determined.
At first, things were fine. Jake continued his routine of a month at your home and a month traveling. You thought it would be okay, nothing would change other than the fact that you slept in the same bed while he visited and stole kisses in the shadows. Well, unfortunately, emotions aren't that simple. Especially when they've been building up for the past twenty years.
You were ecstatic whenever Jake was around. You were happiest when he was within your sight. Your heart melted whenever you watched him play with your children, and it skipped a beat whenever he turned those green eyes on you. You were in heaven every night when his body was pressed against yours. Each and every kiss was new and exciting. You were happy. The happiest you've been in a while.
However, the months he spent away slowly became torturous. After pining for a man for the past twenty years, you thought mere months apart would be nothing. You were wrong. So very, very wrong. Your moods took such a downturn that even Di-Stri noticed. You had trouble concentrating on your work. You had trouble sleeping at night. And you found yourself moping around your home more often than not.
After a few months of this, you decided things had to change. You and Jake talked about it, over and over again. He didn't want you to leave your children, and you didn't either. You didn't want him to give up his ambassador position, and he didn't either. Both of you were willing to make sacrifices, but the other wouldn't allow it. Finally you came to an agreement, and that's why you find yourself on a carriage headed toward the capitol.
No amount of guilt was going to make you change your mind. It's already been made up. No going back now.
Luckily you know Jake well enough to know when he's about to open his mouth.
"English, if you say anything in regards to this trip or its destination, I will throw you out of this carriage."
His mouth shut with an audible sound. Di-Stri's small frame shook with silent giggles.
For a while, only little Roxy's snores broke the silence.
When the castle loomed in the distance, Di-Stri moved from your side to stare open-mouthed out the window. He's never been away from the Strider lands.
"Daddy, it's so big…" He whispers, afraid if he spoke louder it would break the spell. He's in awe, that much is plain to see. You smile and Jake chuckles.
"Damn straight, kid. This is where the king lives. He's got to have the biggest castle. It's the rule." David and little Roxy begin to stir. Di-Stri turns to look at you with wide eyes.
"We're gonna meet the king?" He asks.
You nod. "Yup, and the prince."
His brow furrows in confusion. "What's a prince?"
"He's the king's son. Gonna be the next king." You say as your son turns to look back out the window. He looks completely and utterly enthralled. "He's also friends with your uncle Dave and aunt Rose."
His head whips around so fast you're surprised his neck doesn't break. You also weren't aware his eyes could get that big. "The prince knows uncle Davey and aunty Rose?"
He's only met Dave and Rose a few times. They tried to visit several times after Roxy died, but both of them were too busy for frequent visits. Not that you blame them. Rose is, after all, married to the heir to the kingdom, and Dave has many responsibilities of his own. But despite barely knowing their aunt and uncle, your kids have heard plenty about them. What can you say? You're proud of your siblings and you think your kids deserve to know just how great it is to be a Strider.
"Sure does. The prince is married to aunty Rose, which makes him your uncle." Di-Stri's jaw drops. You reach out and nudge his chin upward. "Keep your mouth shut, kid. Striders don't gawk."
He shuts his mouth quickly and looks back out the window, muttering a quiet: "Wooooow…."
Roxy yawns loudly, drawing your attention away from your oldest son. She's rubbing her eyes with one tiny fist. The other is still clenched in the material of Jake's tunic. "Well, rise and shine, my dear. I trust your nap was marvelous." He says, running his fingers through her fine blonde hair. She opens her golden eyes and peers up at him. He has a drool stain on his shirt, but he doesn't seem to care.
"Jake!" She chirps, and he beams. You try not to be jealous that his name was her first word. He has a soft spot for your only daughter and you know she loves to soak up the attention. She twists in his lap and her eyes lock onto you. "Daddy!" She releases Jake's tunic in order to reach out for you, groping the air with both hands. Jake laughs and holds her out to you. You scoop her into your arms and settle her in your lap, next to her waking brother. David rubs his eyes, making small noises as he fights off sleep.
"Daddy!" Little Roxy's eyes are a shade brighter and more yellow than yours. The color of the sun.
"What's up, sunshine?" You press a kiss to her forehead and she giggles.
"Roxy! Look! The king's castle!" Di-Stri says from his position by the window. Roxy quickly abandons your lap in order to crawl over to her brother. She proceeds to press her face to the glass, making small sounds of awe. David wakes not long after and, after immediately seeing his siblings are up to something, goes to join them.
You watch, a smile of fatherly pride on your lips. You glance at Jake, but he's not watching your kids. He's watching you. A similar but slightly different smile on his face. He reaches out to rest his hand on your knee, squeezing it lightly. You rest your hand atop his, intertwining your fingers. His thumb idly rubs across your knuckles.
When the carriage pulls up to the castle, you and Jake round up your kids and exit the stuffy box on wheels. You hold David while Jake holds Roxy. Di-Stri holds onto your belt, bouncing silently at your side. You lead the way toward the main doors, leaving the servants to unload the second carriage full of possessions you packed for you and your children.
Dave meets you inside the doors. You pause, taking a moment to look him up and down.
"Sup?" He says, as your standard form of greeting.
"Looking good, little bro." You say, offering up your fist. He bumps it with his own.
"Uncle Dave!" Di-Stri says, releasing your belt to make a dart for Dave. Your son's been working on his flash stepping. He's fast for his age, easily faster than all the other four year olds, but Dave is still faster. In barely a blink, he's scooped up your son and flung him over his shoulder.
"Sup, little man?" He says, cracking a small smile. Dave's never been able to keep his blank face when around children. You don't blame him. You can't either. "See you've been working on that Strider speed. Got a ways left to go." He says as Di-Stri squirms, legs kicking. Finally, with some help from Dave, he maneuvers himself to a sitting position on his uncles shoulders, a leg on either side of Dave's head.
When that's settled, the three of you, each with a child in tow, make your way into the castle. Dave leads you to a large, lavishly decorated seating room. Waiting inside are John and Rose, Rose's handmaid hovering silently nearby. When you enter, everyone looks up. Your eyes settled on the small bundle in Rose's arms. You get your first glimpse of your new niece. Your only niece. You're an uncle.
You never thought you'd fall in love with a child that wasn't yours. But you have. She may have the dark hair and deep blue eyes of her father, but she's definitely Rose's daughter.
Di-Stri was nervous when first introduced to John, but after Jake proved the heir was friendly, your son shot question after question at him. David decided it was his turn with his uncle, and Dave didn't mind. You sit next to Rose and she passes her daughter into your arms. Little Roxy is fascinated by her cousin Casey.
You look around the room, and Jake catches your eye. He smiles at you, and his smile is mirrored on your lips.
You and Jake stay for a week. It's the best week you've had in a while. You spend most of it catching up with Dave and Rose, while also helping them get to know your kids. Di-Stri is fascinated by the castle. Roxy and David are more curious about their aunt and uncle. You can tell Rose and Dave are pretty taken with them as well. When looking at them all together, you realize that any of your kids could pass as Dave's or Rose's. Strider genes are strong.
Jake spends the week catching up with John and the king, both as relatives and as the ambassador. It's been a while since he's been to the castle. He's been spending all his free time with you.
Far too soon, it's time to leave. And therefore, time for goodbyes.
You find yourself outside the castle, surrounded by those you love. Two horses have been packed and saddled, ready and waiting for you and Jake. The first person you grab is Dave. Leaving your kids with the others, you drag your little bro a good distance away. When you stop, you turn to face each other, standing awkwardly for a moment.
You're not sure what to do. You're not good with these things. You show your children affection. Smother them with it, in a Strider sort of way. You loved Roxy and you never hesitated to show it. You're even getting better at showing Jake affection, which is difficult after years of trying to hide it. However, you've really never shown your siblings any obvious affection. You took care of them, practically raised them, and embraced a more distant Strider persona.
Whenever Dave was feeling down, you pulled him into strifes. You pranked him and irritated him until he fought you and released his bottled up emotions. Even with Rose, you challenged her to games and puzzles and pranks. She always came back with a vengeance. She was a real challenge. But with either of your siblings, you never…talked about your feelings. They were always something that were implied, felt, never spoken aloud. But there were some things you needed Dave to know.
There's always a first time for something.
"Take care of them, little bro, they're Striders, and Striders take care of their own. They may not be biologically yours, but they're as close as you're going to get." You see the flash of panic in his eyes. Your lips curve into a knowing smile. "Yeah, I know all about your little love affair. I've known for years. Don't give me that look, Dave. You can't hide shit from me. The point is, you're not going to have kids and mine are the only heirs to the Strider name. You're like, honorary father-figure. So take care of 'em while I"m gone."
Then you do something you hadn't done in years. You pulled him into a hug. It took him a moment to get over the shock, but then his arms wrap around you with just as much vigor. "I'm proud of you, little bro." He whispered. "Of everything. You managed to make a name for yourself and get the guy you love. Dad would be proud."
You choke up a little on the last few words, but it's subtle and you don't think he noticed…Who're you kidding? Of course he noticed.
"Dad would be proud of you, too. I wouldn't be who I am today if it weren't for you. Same for Rose." He says. He's getting choked up, too. You can hear the subtle tells of emotion thickening his voice. His words hit home and you feel tears pricking the corners of your eyes. "You wasted a lot of your youth taking care of me and Rose. The least we can do is take care of your kids so you can go get some of it back." He pats you on the back. "He's waiting for you."
"Thanks." You say. No use in denying it anymore. Tears are silently streaming down your cheeks. You nod and you both pull back from the hug. He has matching wet streaks on his cheeks. You share small, knowing smiles.
He walks back to the group and you turn away, wiping the wetness from your face. In a few moments, Rose joins you.
"Judging from the way Dave looks, I presume you two actually talked about your feelings, and you're about to have a similar feelings jam with me." You turn to look at her. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her lips are curved upward at the corners. You smirk.
"You're too sharp for your own good." You say, and her smile widens a fraction.
You turn to face her fully and spread your arms wide. "Come here." She hesitates, looking a little surprised. Your smirk grows into a grin. You actually caught her by surprise. Not that you blame her. She never got displays of affection from you either. "I said, come here." You repeat. Finally she uncrosses her arms and steps into yours. It's not a tight, strangling hug, like with Dave. You envelop her fully and her fingers curl into the back of your tunic.
You rest your chin atop her head. "I'm proud of you, little sis. The kingdom couldn't have picked a better queen. You're the smartest, most beautiful young woman I know. Excluding my late wife. She was the most beautiful. You're only second." She chuckles, but you can hear the hidden emotion. You've never told her you were proud of her. It always went unsaid. "This is a much better way of life than a convent." She stiffens and you chuckle. "Yeah, I know about your little love affair. As clever as you are, you can't hide anything from me. I'm also proud of you for not giving up on the woman you love. Good going, sis."
She's smiling. You're not sure how you know, but you do. You raised her. You know her better than most.
"Take care of my kids, Rose. I know you have your own to worry about, but the Strider kids don't have a mother figure anymore. They need you. You and Kanaya. They're Striders. And though you never went by our last name, you're a Strider, too."
She nods, burying her face in the curve of your shoulder. "I will. I promise." She whispers. "You need to go get back your lost years. We'll take care of your kids."
You rest a hand in her hair, your fingers running through it. "Thanks."
You pull back and go meet the others together. Rose subtly wipes away tears. You don't bother trying to hide it.
Saying goodbye to your kids is worse. Much worse.
The twins are too young to understand. They just look at you with curious eyes as you hold them tight. You don't say anything to them. They're too young to need it. You take a good look at them, kiss their foreheads, and pass them to Jake so he can say his goodbyes.
Di-Stri is old enough to understand, and also old enough to be upset.
You kneel down and pull him into your arms. He grips your tunic and buries his face in the curve of your neck. Luckily you've already explained the situation to him as best you could. You told him that uncle Jake needed you in his travels now, that he and the twins would be staying with Rose and Dave while you're away. He spent the entirety of yesterday moping around the castle while simultaneously clinging to you. You don't blame him. You needed him close too.
You think it helped that you gave him your favorite puppet: Lil Cal. You know Lil Cal will watch over your son, and you know Di-Stri will take good care of him.
"Be good for your aunt and uncle, little man." You whisper. He nods, but doesn't lift his head. You can feel your shoulder growing damp. "Take care of the twins while I'm gone." He nods again. After a moment, you finally pull away. He stares at the ground, sniffling and wiping tears from his eyes.
You put a finger under his chin and gently lift his head. Your smile is small but full of warmth. "Chin up. Strider's don't cry." You say, despite the fresh tear stains on your cheeks. "Daddy will be back before you know it." You kiss his forehead and stand.
Rose and Kanaya take the twins while Dave picks up Di-Stri, placing him on his shoulders.
You mount your horse with a heavy heart.
Your family waves their final goodbyes. You give them all a small salute and a Strider head nod before turning your horse around and kicking it into a gallop. From the sound of hoofbeats, you can tell Jake is right behind you.
You don't turn around until you're almost out of sight. They're still standing there. You raise your hand high, and in the distance, you see Di-Stri do the same.
"We won't be gone long, you know." Jakes voice tears you from your thoughts.
You turn to look at him. He's brought his horse alongside yours. The wind rips through his dark hair and his eyes squint against the breeze. Yet his smile is brilliant and your heart pounds back to life at the sight.
You smile. "I know."
Once you reach the main road, you slow your horses to a trot. It isn't long before Jake is directing you to a side road that dips into the tree line. If you remember correctly, your first destination is a town far to the south.
"We've got a lot of traveling ahead of us, mate." Jake says, pulling his horse alongside yours. Close enough that your legs bump together and the horses snort in annoyance. "And many adventures await us. Are you ready for this, Strider?"
You glance at him and smirk. "My body is ready, English."
You're still not used to Jake showing you affection, or being able to return it. It's still so new and you've spent the last twenty years carefully hiding your feelings. So you're not expecting it when Jake reaches out and grabs you by the front of your tunic. He pulls you toward him and plants a kiss firmly on your lips. You're in shock for only a few seconds before eagerly responding, kissing him back with equal vigor.
He breaks the kiss and grins. "Try to keep up, Strider." He releases you and kicks his horse into a sudden gallop, taking off and leaving you in a cloud of dust.
Never one to deny a challenge, you chase after him. Just like you've been chasing after him for years. Only this time, you know you're going to catch him in the end. Because he's already yours.
You've held out hope for years, and now you finally have his heart.