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The Protectorate

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Prologue

When All Is Lost

 

His green eyes were blank, soulless, just like he’d been taught, over and over again. Even now, standing in front of him once more, the words resounded in his head, and he was back in the damp cell. It was supposed to be his job to look out for the blonde with a snarky attitude, but now he had succumbed to this, and there was nothing standing in his way in this state of mind.

“Hello,” Jake greeted the man sitting casually, waiting for him. He descended to the ground to kneel in respect, despite his determined refusal to put his weapons away by the other green-clad individuals anxiously snarling at him. They certainly weren’t pleased with the actions of the one their Lord wanted to succeed him, and he couldn’t blame them; but he was here now, wasn’t he?

“Hello, boy,” He stood very slowly, the sheer enormity of his presence echoing in hallowed halls. “What have I said about kneeling? You kneel to no one.”

“Sir,” Jake stood to rapt attention, making no sudden moves when the Lord sidled over to him. The older man caressed the young man’s face in an almost lecherous manner, calloused fingers running over the his strong jawline. The Lord looked into those motionless green eyes and thought rather highly of himself. Even as a battle raged here in the storm-ravaged island, he couldn’t help but take the time to admire where they were in this very moment in time, the two of them getting ready to rise up and show the mainland who, exactly, held the strings.

The clash of weaponry and the firing of arms failed to perturb the duo, and when another young man, soaked to the bone, barreled in, slitting the throats of a couple of the guards, the young man and his supposed predecessor stared him down, the former raising his firearms slowly, but without a trace of hesitance in his body language. Just as he’d greeted the older man, he said, “Hello.” The lilt in his voice familiar, and the triggers pulled before the other boy could even curse.

When had it come to this? He was supposed to be protecting the blonde, and now he was shooting at him, without a care in the world. Retreating into darker recesses of his mind, he wanted to stop his reflexes, but for now could only hope the other would remember when his rounds ran out, and pretend he didn’t want to cry right now.

Finally, a foot came flying at his face at the same time someone else crashed through the roof and onto the Lord next to him, keeping his attention elsewhere.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The blonde was snarling, and his wet face was deceptive with rain, but from the choke to his words, he may very well have been crying behind those shades. “Jake English, you swore, you swore to me,” He held a smaller knife than the sword he’d shot out of his grasp up against Jake’s much darker throat, shaking a little bit. “You swore it would never come to this.”

Instinctually flipping the blonde over and slapping the knife out of his hands, he moved to place his fingers around that pale throat, tears finally slipping from emerald eyes. “Dirk, I’m sorry,” He squeezed tightly, sobs breaking him as he pushed his fingers ever closer. “I’m so sorry.”

 

 

Jake stopped strangling him once the blonde had become breathless, leaving Dirk flailing and gasping for air before the dark-skinned brunette found his gun and reloaded it, wanting his death to be swift.

“I’m so sorry.”

Without another word, his eyes fell closed and he pulled the trigger, the shot echoing around the hallows of the Lord’s festering grounds.

Chapter Text

alt links: ff.net | tumblr | lj

 

It felt good to have the wind at his back as he peered through the scope, focusing his scope with a slick smile on his face. Wearing these clothes was by no means comfortable, but they came with the business, and he certainly wasn’t one to complain. His partner, along with the typically allocated three to four members used as lookouts and backup, were placed in varying places in the building, and on his overhead radio, he heard her rambling something or another about not getting too excited, but this was difficult to accomplish, as he was nearly always thrilled about these sorts of exercises.

His spine tingled from his place pressed belly down against rooftop steel as the target walked into his view, and murmuring about having to go, he shut off his communications and adjusted the shot. As soon as he fired a deadly, silent shot and received a little squawk from his target, he realized that perhaps he should’ve been listening to her. Yeesh. He’d missed by quite a few inches by getting carried away, leaving the man decapitated with a mess to clean up for the others. Of course, because he’d done the deed, it was his mission to flee as soon as the deed had been accomplished, but it didn’t stop him from waiting up back at base and getting his ear chewed off.

“I told ya not to let your excitement go to your gut, and what’d ya do – ya let it mess you up anyways. Your shot’s never this terrible!” She pinched his nose sharply and he swatted her away with a big goofy smile, watching the others roll in exhaustedly, the door red with the haze of sunrise. Seeing his expression, she sighed and plopped down next to him. “Jeez, Jakey, what’m I s’posed to do with ya?”

Smiling at his partner, he shrugged, letting his arm fall comfortably on her shoulder. “Accept me and know that I made a mistake, but I’ll do smashingly next time, and then you shan’t complain.” He winked at her, shortly stifling a yawn. “It is going to be a blasted long day, though,” The lilt in his voice probably a sign that he was coming down off of his high and was now preparing for the more difficult part of his job.

“You’re tellin’ me,” She shifted against him, yawning just the same. “What’s our excuse this time? Late night in the red light district?”

“You think they’re going to up and believe us if we say we got pissed on a Tuesday?” They shared a sly look, and he threw his head back with laughter. “Oh my, Miss Lalonde, how scandalous.”

After another moment enjoying each other’s company, they forced themselves to go look at least halfway decent for the following hours of daylight.

-

He’d been told and taught from a very young age that he had something important to do. Make sure you never leave unarmed, his grandfather had told him with a shine in his deep green eyes, the fields and hills of the Island not only a great place for a lad to grow up, but also a training grounds. The boy almost never rested peacefully for fear of his life, but he took an enjoyment to the threat, instead of yearning for a typical life.

“This one is mine,” The old man had said, brandishing a large, wide-mouthed rifle just as tall as he was, a grin splitting his lips from behind his bushy, curly moustache. “I call ‘er Bluderbuss.” When he’d finally gotten the boy to settle down from bouncing on heels long enough, he’d crouch in the brush with that rifle poised on his shoulder, and he was no longer the pleasant, fun-loving old man with a fondness for adventure and storytelling, but instead a killer, with a sharp expression and a no-nonsense jawline. Jake watched as he carefully hit a running lion in his field of vision, a beast lithe and quick, and brought it to its end without pain. “And that, boy, is something you will perfect in due time.”

Jake had watched in awe, gaining his own weapons – two pistols, far more suited to his energy and small hands, continuing to pay rapt attention as his grandfather told more and more of his stories, the tales shifting from the fantastic to the dutiful after he’d shot his first rabbit at age four, tales of families, and children he would soon be bonded to for life – but it was an honorable bond, he’d been assured.

Then, just before everything had begun to fall apart for him, he’d been granted the honor of pictures – his grandfather’s heavy hand on his shoulder feeling like a step to adulthood, even though he was hardly five years old.

“Jane Crocker,” He’d said, smiling gently like they were his own friends. “Dirk Strider. You protect them, boy, like you’ve never protected anything else, like nothing else matters.”

“I will, sir,” He promised the old man, reloading his pistols dutifully and perfecting his aim by shooting birds this time, and also being introduced to his very first rifle. “I won’t disappoint you.”

 

[full]

-

Examining himself in the mirror yielded positive results, and he winked at his reflection. He was tanned, and looked dashingly handsome, if he said so himself, with his typical Wednesday morning outfit – khaki shorts, a white t-shirt, a green over-shirt, and sandals – a collection that carefully hid most of his scars and let him look deceptively easy-going. They had to believe the ruse, and there was enough truth in his personality to fuel the disguise. Drinking a strong black coffee, he sighed upon re-joining his partner for the ride to school.

“Must attendance be such a blasted part of our work?” He grumbled light-heartedly as he started his four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle and she climbed into the passenger seat, tossing both of their bags into the backseats. Wearing a bright pink shirt and a white blouse as well as fluorescent pink heels made her look very pretty, and she smiled widely upon seeing his gaze catch her bosom.

“You know you love it, ya lech,” She winked at him and he laughed a bit, waiting for her to buckle the seatbelt before revving into drive and beginning the trek to a couple different living places, and then, finally, their educational facility. The first stop prompted Roxy to slide into the backseat so that Jake could chat with the blonde about nothing in particular, fist bumping him and making his laughs bigger, more animated, smiling about almost everything the other boy said. Their second stop was at an expansive piece of real-estate, for being in the heart of Hearthcove City, and home to the young heiress with a big heart and a good sense of humor, and the four made an odd pair, but not for reasons one might typically assume.

This was, of course, because Roxy Lalonde and Jake English were protecting Dirk Strider and Jane Crocker, the two of them partners under their families’ protectorate alliance network.

Hearthcove, their district, was a territory largely assumed in reputation to be Lalonde-English protected, and the turf wars assumed by the various groups in the country of Tane frowned upon making a move here, not only because of that unity, but also because of its’ landscape. Residing on a coast made it rather warm and muggy year round, and its’ jungle-like areas were dangerous even for the natives because of the beasts they held. However, Hearthcove City was a large import and export hub due to its proximity to the water, and high-rises were far more common to the city than houses or the village shanties further inland.

Jake was simply glad that he lived within such close proximity of his charges, because otherwise it would be terribly difficult to watch over them as he’d promised. Of course, Jake couldn’t watch over Jane and Dirk all of the time. Their job had other duties in its’ description. For example, he and Roxy’s run the previous evening – to kill off a member of the Midnight Crew. Their target was obviously new to the job, some poor, lost soul at the mercy of their firepower. He’d been scheming with a couple of other new guys to kidnap and torture the younger Strider, and as soon their intelligence network had found out, they had dialed Jake and Roxy to remove the head of the threat.

The green-eyed male resisted the urge to snarl just thinking about them, and instead focused on what Dirk had been saying to him. “Sorry about that, chap, what?”

“Just sayin’ you looked a little bit out of it.” The blonde’s expression was vastly blank, and largely unreadable because a pair of pointed shades balanced on his sharp nose.

As he pulled the car into park, he chuckled. “Only a late night,” He pulled a trademark of his, winking with little pistol motions and clicks of his tongue, and he could tell his “best friend”-slash-charge was rolling his eyes. Pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, he threw his cargo pack over his shoulder, making sure he could feel for the army knife in one pocket and the switchblade in the other before closing his door and locking the vehicle. They slid into their school with chatter surrounding them, many gossiping and waving hello to the four of them.

Hearthcove Central High was typical, a population of about two-thousand roaming its’ large halls, many surfing through the web on their computers and holographic projections of the news quietly humming as they greeted their schoolfellows. Although Jake and Roxy hadn’t intended it to be so, they as well as their charges had become something of a sensation. Jake and Dirk had gotten into a friendly brawl of sorts in the cafeteria, but although it seemed that way, Jake had simply been protecting him from a small, deadly needlelike prick from someone else who must’ve been disguising themselves here at school. Dirk hadn’t taken well to being shoved to the ground with a big smile, and so the orange-eyed boy turned it back on him full-force, and although his green-eyed protector was proud of his display of strength, he’d still only been pretending that the exchange had left him winded. After that, many school officials had come in to try and break it up, and Roxy had come smoothly behind him, Jane in tow, to explain that they were just horsing around; they were best friends, after all.

They cleaned themselves up and came back out smiling, Jake’s arm tossed over the Strider’s shoulder, and quite a few cheered for the stoic and largely calm blonde, and the wildly grinning brunette, because they hadn’t known either of them were capable of such a thing. Of course when people learned that Roxy and Jane were their good friends, the two of them were always being badgered to introduce them to Jake and Dirk, but Roxy assured them it wasn’t all fun and games. Jane agreed with a scolding smile, saying smartly that she wouldn’t sell her friends out like that, and for her words Jake and Dirk were always thankful.

None of that stopped their peers from ogling and gossiping all the day anyhow, and it made English restless. Being in school was no problem; he was smart enough, and Dirk was practically a genius, so whatever he didn’t know, he took to him for clarification. The older they got, the more it seemed that Roxy was becoming better and better at handling her liquor, but her drinking still made her difficult to deal with. However, it appeared that their play flirting made them seem like a couple, and although he’d tried to quell the rumor several times the previous year, it seemed that, because it was August, the new year signaled a resurgence of talk.

As if school wasn’t pain enough for keeping tabs on Dirk, Jane was a year younger than him, and Roxy had flunked once to stay with them so he didn’t have to do it alone, but not having any classes with her was difficult. Luckily, they all had lunch together, so he could check their status with his own two eyes at the same time.

Thinking about what they were doing also made him feel a little stressed, although his carefree smile and doodles in History displayed none of these concerns. Jane was a big girl now, with a spitfire tongue and caring heart, and he wasn’t sure, but he felt like she was developing a crush on him, and that was difficult. It was already hard enough, being friends with them, but further feelings for his job just got in the way. It made him compromised. He wasn’t sure how Roxy did it, just having feelings for everyone. He’d tried moving past such things with…alternative methods, but it wasn’t his personality, and it had felt wrong for reasons he definitely didn’t want to be thinking about right now.

Dirk was a strange story for him as well. What was there? He felt like they were in the motions of some strange courting ritual, and by the time Literature came around, he felt even more confused, because his so-called best friend was writing him memos and putting little hearts on the end of his sentences (for irony, apparently) with D+J in them (Dirk & Jake), and he was also flirting back with him.

What a mess.

However, wanting the day to end and breaking his thoughts from relationships and the accompanying burden of schoolwork also meant focusing on troubles with work. Recently, he’d been receiving calls and memos from two very different individuals, but they said very much the same thing.

We want you, Jakey boy.

Jake had always known there was a reason his Grandfather and Mother never talked about family, and why his father, the few times they’d met face to face, had so warned him against them. They were the few that had entered into the alliance for safety and security.

The Alliance. Groaning, he knew he’d have to talk to his cousin about his screw up yesterday, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. She certainly had a harsh tone about things when she wanted to. Several families were involved in it – The Crockers (only a particular stem of it, much like his own dying lineage), The Striders, The Egberts, The Harleys, and The Lalondes. They rotated Protectorates every twenty years or so, or when a new generation had emerged – as it stood, Egberts and English were supposed to guard Striders and Lalondes, but Roxy had stood up and taken Jade’s place, leaving Jade to guard her district with her family, and Dave, Dirk’s older brother, had discovered his Egbert’s true duty and called bullshit, refusing to be the benefactor of this protection and have his friend take all the damage. Jade would be upset with him for missing the shot and would probably take him away to reeducate him about the families, and what failure meant, yadda yadda yadda.

In days of late, Jake had begun to wonder if Dirk was getting suspicious of him, and if he hadn’t already had enough to worry about, that was now at the top of his list, just ahead of being forcefully separated from his charge and inducted into the Crew or the other branch of his family, the second option more horrifying than the first. But more than his relative he knew next to nothing about, other than the fact that he was evil incarnate, Dave would beat his ass into next week if he got his brother involved in their mess, and that was reason enough to make sure Dirk’s suspicions were assuaged.

“You zoned out on me again,” Dirk was saying in his deep voice, the sunglasses glinting in the midday sun and highlighting the splotches of freckles on his pale skin. Roxy and Jane were giggling about something or another in the background, and he honestly couldn’t remember how he’d gotten to the end of the day, and furthermore, to his car, so consumed had his thoughts been with all his concerns. “You alright?”

He was doing a bang-up job of dashing his suspicions already. “’Course, bro! Sorry ‘bout that, mate, just sort of got lost up here,” He pointed to his head before ruffling Dirk’s hair, receiving a swat and a grumble for his joviality. The four of them tumbled into the car, Jane sidling into the front seat and chatting at him about what she was making for dinner, attempting make her friends to salivate before inviting them over, to which Roxy hurried to volunteer. Dirk agreed without fuss, and Jane said that her father would be perfectly alright with them coming – they came two to three times out of the week anyways, because Roxy's family lived in a different district from her, Dirk had the apartment to himself three hundred and sixty days out of the year, and Jake lived alone.

Sitting next to her like this, with a big smile, and a couple pinches of his cheeks for mouthing off, he felt wonderful, and he loved her just a little bit more. She didn’t have to deal with her motley crew of friends, two-thirds of whom had a duty to defend her life, but she loved them, and fed them, and made silly, old-fashioned quips that they all needed more meat on their bones that the three of them sheepishly could not deny. For the green-eyed male and his rose-eyed partner, being able to squeeze through tight spaces and limber on ones’ feet was a necessity, and the orange-haired young man just never bothered with feeding himself.

Jake pulled into the long drive for the second time that evening, and for a moment, he wished he could just be normal. As much as he loved his job, and he’d promised his grandfather that he’d make the most of it, he wanted to hold Jane and Dirk on one arm each with his big, bright teeth peeking out and not worry about whether someone had a laser trained at their backs. They would be friends – honest friends, not the innocent protected and deceptive protectorates – eating dinner together.

Shaking his head from those thoughts, he closed his door and trailed behind Jane and Roxy and walked next to Dirk up to the front door of the Crocker estate. Senses trained for any suspicious movements, he kept joking and acting the part of airheaded, carefree Jake English with a knack for adventure and a strange fascination with firearms.

But the ruse was cracking, and nothing he could do would change that.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The Protectorate

Falling

 

The holographic flip of her headset buzzed with activity, two separate callers waiting on the line, and she huffed, blowing pieces of her wavy hair out of her face in the process. The boys could at least wait until she was done. The heavy click of her gun signaled the release of the bullet, and it flew right into her target’s head, the second into his heart. She shoved the rifle into a duffle bag loaded with clothes after the safety had been clicked back on and then tossed it over her shoulder before beginning to sidle back to her car.

“All I’m saying is that he fucked up –”

“Everyone fucks up on the job sometimes –”

“Boys, boys, please,” She held up a hand in a sort of peace offering as she slid into her four-wheeler, tossing her bag into the backseat and putting it in drive. “What’s happened?” 

“I was just saying how your cousin’s gotten himself into a fine ass mess this time,” The snarky voice of one of the men replied, a bite to his words and the drawl of his accent coming across on their communications clearly. “I mean, once is fine, but once you screw up this big-time – and screw up for the second time in less than two weeks, by the way – you end up being on the run unless someone’s dad can step in and bail him out.”

“I never said he couldn’t get him out, I just said it wouldn’t be right away! You need to calm down just a little bit, okay?” She sighed, interrupting them once again.

“Jake’s at a hard time in his life, and unlike you two, he wasn’t lucky enough to start working with his best friend. We all know this business isn’t exactly easy to keep a secret.”

“Rox is doing a damn fine job of it,” The first man bit, only to be reminded by his friend that she had a family in the business with involvement, so she wasn’t entirely alone. “Okay, fine, shit, Jake’s got it pretty damn bad, but in no way is he excused. He’s about to land himself in the slammer; we’re the ones that’ll have to deal with the repercussions.”

“You’ve been bitching about how bored you’ve been for weeks,” The second man scolded his partner. “Stop worrying about the situation for five minutes and focus on that, why don’t you?”

She sighed again, pulling the turn opposite from her house so that she could head for their city, a couple hours drive from here. “Hey look, I’m headed there, alright? Just give me a sec to call Grandpa.”

The two of them grumbled before going back to arguing with each other over the thing, and she rolled her eyes, knowing that now they were just doing this to pick on each other.

What a nightmare, she thought, signaling the right turn before reaching up to pull the hair tie previously keeping back most of her knee-length hair. She turned on the radio to check for the news, and was relieved that the event hadn’t received any air. No sense in fueling her friend’s veiled but quietly volatile temper.

It had been a fairly typical Friday night. He had deigned to hang out with Dirk to watch movies and play video games – the blonde was particularly excellent at all the sporty, motion-sensitive games despite Jake’s every attempt to oust him – and they’d been doing just that until around eight pm when he received a message on his cellular phone reading that he had a job to do. He gave Dirk his usual excuse, that his cousin had called about some drama with her family and he’d have to drive up to her place for the weekend; nothing unusual. But Jake could sense that the orange-eyed stoic was analyzing his body language and every word, and it unnerved him, forcing him to leave before things began to feel awkward between them.

He whipped a message to Roxy to have someone keep watch over Dirk while he was gone and to meet up with him at base in thirty minutes, and even as he slid into the car he could feel eyes eerily staring at him pull off, and it gave the dark-haired young man the willies.

Earlier that afternoon, when he’d dropped off Jane and Roxy at the Crocker household, Dirk had suddenly cornered him by asking how he felt about the junior, and he found himself entirely unable to answer. He certainly felt a pull to her, and she was comforting and felt very warm. Not to mention that she had breasts, and none to complain about either. She was shapely and had a lovable expression even when she was furrowing her brows at him. But somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew it was wrong, for any number of reasons, the foremost of which being that he had an equal duty to his other charge, his best friend. His job didn’t allow for messy feelings like those between the protected and their protectorates; it wasn’t worth thinking about for too long. “She’s nice,” He said, and an awkward silence fell between the two in the car until they reached Strider’s complex, parking in the garage in his usual spot on the tenth floor.

He remembered a particular string of ‘adventures’ none too fondly, and shook his head of those thoughts. “I mean, I like her,” Jake felt the need to clarify with a cough to break the tension. “I haven’t the faintest, but perhaps I’d court her, if the situation were…otherwise.” His hesitation and sideways glances at his best friend were just dragging this out and making things so much worse. “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

Dirk paused, and the green-eyed youth could assume that his friend was trying to analyze whether or not he should do just that. Apparently, the answer had been yes, because he replied, “Okay, sure,” And Jake breathed out a sigh of relief.

Shaking his head to keep from day dreaming while he drove, he was happy to hear the ping of a message, signaling that someone else had already begun watching Dirk in his stead, and that Roxy was headed to Base already. Mission time. Feelings would only hinder his aim, like they had the past week when he’d gotten a little too excitable. This time, it was more like the sickly dread of anxiety; Dirk’s suspicions were becoming ever more obvious, and beyond that, Jane, he thought, was becoming dangerously close to asking him to dinner. Alone. Like a date. And he wasn’t sure he would say no. 

He hoped this job would be enough to keep his mind otherwise preoccupied.

                                                                                                                        -

She didn’t bother with knocking; their home had surveillance cameras and some shitty, makeshift security system, but the door was almost never locked, because they didn’t keep extremely incriminating things here, and if someone did try to break in, they would have a hell of time beating down the house’s residents.

Already, in the four hours it had taken her to drive there, the two of them had made peace and were watching some movie that one or both of them had probably seen seventeen times already and chatting amiably over the dialog.

 

                                                     

                                                                                                                             [full]

 

They turned to greet their guest, the darker-haired of the two leaping up and wrapping her in a hug. “Jade!” Her friend-slash-distant-relative rubbed his face against hers, getting a laugh from her before his charge-turned-field-partner sidled over and gave her an awkward shoulder hug that she fixed into a regular grasp shortly. “Can I get you anything to drink before we start talking?” Dawn was cracking, so any plan they laid out wouldn’t be put in motion until the following day, but the gangly man with an endearing overbite and glasses perched on his high nose wasn’t one to be rude, regardless. “Coffee, juice? Protein shake?”

“Coffee sounds great, thanks,” Jade replied, throwing her duffle onto their couch and slumping over the countertop. John was wearing his after-work pajamas – sort of form-fitting, unconstricting blue pants and a loose white t-shirt with a ghost slime logo– that were, as he described, comfortable but still allowed for a quick grab of a set of throwing knives and a chase with someone whose head he might have to bash in. Besides that, the material washed easily. “So, give me the details. But make it simple. I just finished a job myself.”

The other male, a couple inches shorter than his housemate, paler, with hundreds of scattered freckles spread against his skin, and who hid his eyes behind a pair of shades, scowled before telling his version of a short story. “He fucked up a mission, got caught, and now he’s locked up,” A very short story. When she sent him a no-nonsense look, he shrugged and spoke once again. “You said keep it simple.”

“Stop it, you two,” John held the three cups of steaming coffee in his hands and had the half and half and sugar tucked under a forearm each, both things balanced up against his chest. Quickly enough, he everything down at the kitchen bar where Jade had slumped over and Dave was sitting down. “I mean, from what I understood, the last time he was on a mission, you told me he let his emotions get in the way. I’m guessing that happened again, but at a totally bad time. The enemy got the jump on him and Roxy and they made such a ruckus that the Crew fled, leaving the two of them at the scene.” He put none of the additives in his coffee, although Dave was spooning in sugar like it was a hot commodity and Jade had a fair balance of both cream and sugar in hers; he had a long history of aversion to sweets, and they no longer questioned it. “I mean, luckily they knew who they were, though, so even if my Dad can’t pull together the cash, the cops know better than to lock someone from the alliance up for long. I’m guessing they want information.”

Or we can go in there and bail them out late at night, in disguise, and get the hell out before this becomes a huge ass news-scandal. I can see the holo-papers now – English and Lalonde: What Secrets Have Been Under the People of Tane’s Noses the Whole Time?”

“That’ll only make it worse,” Both John and Jade admonished in unison, but their blonde friend went on muttering about how awesome it would be regardless. Jade twirled her long, rugged fingers around her hair with one hand and sipped with the other before speaking once more.

“But what if we came to some sort of middle ground?” She brainstormed quietly, knowing she had the attention of the boy in dark black jeans and white and red shirt bearing a disc at its center. “We will have to get into the police complex somehow, and just marching up and saying we want to compromise wouldn’t fly very well now, would it?” She grinned, zipping the front of her midnight-black tracksuit back up in the chill of their air-conditioning – John’s pre ference – before reaching for her coffee cup and taking another sip. “Assuming we have the funds by nightfall, they might not even ‘remember’ our breaking in to the interrogation ward. 

John and Dave shared a look, both of them grinning in excitement. “Gotta love the way you think, Harley,” The blonde commended her with a nod of his head. “I’ll get a map so you two can do the hard shit before I get some weapons. Oh, and don’t forget to call Daddy dearest.” 

Blue eyes rolled at his friend. “You think I’d forget one of the most crucial parts of the plan?” John then stuck out his tongue, getting the middle finger back in response before Dave disappeared from vision and he pulled out his mobile. “You’d think he came out of the womb being such an asshole or something,” Jade giggled at that before going back to brainstorming for their plans, glad to have something to distract her from feelings. It was easier than thinking about any kind of torture her cousin might currently be facing.

He first loaded the magazines of both his pistols, and then cleaned their barrels. No need to have a poor show because he was all over the place mentally. Besides which, the act of cleaning his guns and loading them was a comforting practice, and he could hear Roxy preparing a dart gun, and tightening the holster for her field knife that had a small first aid kit in one of its compartments, and he checked his own holster for its’ other equipment, something he often neglected to do in favor of polishing his instruments. 

Roxy’s chatting about something or another that happened at school today, and he listens absently, commenting with laughs and frowns, but when she dips into more dangerous territory, he somehow can’t slip back into that blank state, and that concerns him. That’s the only way he knows he’ll enjoy the hunt, if he’s not thinking about them. If he’s thinking about them, what will they think about all this blood on his hands? 

“You should tell ‘im, y’know,” Roxy says softly, sitting next to her partner with a scarf curled around her throat even in the muggy evening of Hearthcove City. “He might not like it, but he’d sure as hell’d like to know where you always get off to and why ya sometimes get this real slick smile over weird shit.” 

“I do not,” He protested weakly, and she shoved his shoulder. Of course he realized that his humor had grown rather dark as a result of his work, but it was easily brushed off as the same desensitization to violence as everyone else.

“Well, if you don’t tell ‘im, he’s gonna figure it out anyways; Di-Stri’s not stupid,” She stood up and took a small telescope from her pocket to keep an eye out for the small patch of spies hired to trail their charges that they’d been charged with taking out this evening by the Harleys. “And when you two talk about it, it ain’t gonna be pretty, that’s for damn sure.” 

Jake gave her a nod and smiled reassuringly at her. “Well, he’s my best friend…thing’s’ll be hunky-dory eventually, once we get all this hogwash under the bridge.” Finally, he stood and began the descent down the fire escape of this six-story building, the clink of Roxy’s shoes against the metal just moments behind his own began to calm him down, get him prepared for this, but not enough.

He didn’t have a good handle on himself. Anything could happen.

Once they’d come to the ground, the continued tailing the spies quietly, hiding in alleyways and making themselves look inconspicuous. Hearthgrove City was large and sprawling, but it packed up shop around eight o’clock and became like a metropolitan ghost town by midnight, with only the seedy red-light district running its’ wares and services, and they certainly cared little about their illegal activities. Of course, the Law Enforcement cared just a little bit more.

Their Law Enforcement was a Consort-headed engine with many facets; namely, large, multi-storied complexes affectionately given the misnomer of ‘slammers’. Its’ police taskforce was supposed to keep the peace between the families in contest over the Mesopotamian Bridgeway, as well as keep an eye on illegal activities, reprimanding criminals not under the alliance. Of course, they would be forced to capture anyone obviously breaking the law, regardless of their seedy connection to the Six-Families via funds, and they did it for information on the Crew or the Felt, neither of which were they famous for liking very much. It was something of an unspoken rule that Alliance members just didn’t do anything to get into a tangle with the law, but every once in awhile, nothing could stop the police’s interference.

Sometimes, officers got bored of the monotony just like everyone else.

Jake focused his vision behind his glasses, and the group walked past his sight, so he started firing like mad, Roxy hissing behind him, but he didn’t care how reckless he was. Tumbling out of his crack in the wall, he gave them nice, messy rounds in their throats and through their ears, even a couple in their livers. He wound his way around the return fire and messily handled knives, shooting and shooting, and he’d unloaded his rounds – twelve per gun, more than enough to shoot the four spies, snarling when Roxy had come behind him to stop him from dipping his hands in the blood of one of them.

“You there—you two!” Someone yelled at them, and the young man cursed colorfully, his partner only able to spread some oil that she’d brought in her bag and light a match as getting rid of evidence before they took off, but it was already too late.

“Damn it, Jakey,” Roxy hissed as they started running into more and more dead ends, literally and figuratively in the form of police at their other exits. There was no easy way to duck into the buildings at two a.m. either, so they decided with a look that it would just be easier to go in for investigation for god knew how long and escape the facilities later. “Just couldn’t resist, could ya?” They were cuffed together and rode to the Complex in complete silence, their police officer looking uncomfortable with their age, but his superior was grinning too happily, and Jake was looking worse for the wear, so no one made any chatter.

Absently, he wondered if Dirk and Jane were sleeping peacefully.

They weren’t. John had dialed the other blonde with a grin on his face, despite the early hour. “Hiya, Dirk!” His voice was familiar to the younger Strider, and while he’d offered Dave the opportunity to fabricate the story for his brother, it seemed that he wanted nothing to do with this. “How’re you?”

“…Tired,” His response was unsurprising – it was six-thirty in the morning, after all. “What’s wrong?”

“Just wanted to let you know that Jake’s hanging out over here this weekend,” Jade greeted him sleepily with a hello, and Dave continued to sulk, John being the only one so pleasant on so little sleep, even though his partner could go longer without it. “So we’ll be around to pick you up on Monday!”

There was a pause where John wondered what was going through his head, although he could guess, judging by the furrowed brow of his own Strider, and their shared history. “…Is he going to be okay?”

He wasn’t a very good liar at the best of times, but lying to him just felt horrible. “Of course! We won’t party too hard.”

“…Tell him to be careful,” The other Strider then hung up, and John blinked before heaving a sigh.

“Your brother knows, doesn’t he?” Dave gave him a short nod, arms folded across his chest. “Well, I guess the only thing we can do here is get Jake out and talk about that later. What’re you going to do if your brother wants to, y’know, get involved?” John asked and headed for the couch for a short nap, throwing his legs across the blonde’s lap and making sure Jade had already gone to his bedroom to sleep.

“Kill your cousin,” Strider answered, to which his partner inappropriately snorted. “Not that he hasn’t got the guts, but I don’t want him in this business. It’s bad enough people like you and Jade already in this, and people like me and him – we’re already a mess.” His friend frowned a little bit, flicking him on the forehead. “Yeah, yeah, already too many feelings, I’ll shut up. But I’m ready to be done with this mission right now. 

“Yeah, no joke,” John agreed, throwing a blanket over the two of them before leaning back and starting to doze off, his sunglass-sporting partner moments later.

What a nightmare.

Notes –
1) The very first conversation, Jade (no italics/bold) is speaking to Dave (italics only) and John (italics and bold).
2) Jade Harley is 21; John Egbert and Dave Strider are 20 years old.
3) Jade lives in Farlo, Mesopotamian Bridgeway. It’s a city on the far edge of the small district, about a four-hour drive from Hillsborough, North Westdale, where Dave and John live and work together.
4) Weapons/Utilities –
- Jake English: 2 M2 Berettas/pistols, emergency knife set, and a small first aid kit that he often forgets to refill. He also uses a long-range sniper rifle for long-distance assassinations.
- Roxy Lalonde: A jagged Norwegian-styled field knife, more useful for rope cutting than killing people, but useful for both in case of an emergency. She also carries a dart-gun for tranquilizing or poisoning their targets; whichever is best for killing them more quickly and quietly.
- Jade Harley: A long-range rifle used for assassinations and also for leisure/hunting.
- John Egbert: A set of customized throwing knives, sometimes a bat if nothing else is nearby, and for knocking enemies out. He’s a lot better at beating and bloodying, not killing, but he is much stronger than he looks, as lanky as he is.
5) Schools – Jade goes to Farlo’s Art & Design, Dave goes to Hillsborough Community College, and John goes to Starshine Upperschooling.
6) Family – Jade is Jake’s ‘cousin’ through the family; in actuality, her deceased father and Jake’s father are distantly related, but she and Jake refer to themselves as cousins for ease of understanding, and because they are very close. John’s connection to Jake is similar, but his father and Jake’s mother were blood-cousins on the mother’s side. The means Dad Egbert and Mom English were the children of Grandma English. Dave and Dirk are orphans, their grandparents and parents having been a part of the union and died on duty when Dirk was very young.

Chapter Text

She remembered long evenings at her house with her friend, his green-eyes bright and his smile toothy and wicked. He didn’t seem to care that she was girl, and sometimes tussled with her outside in the garden, but not for long. He seemed concerned that she might get hurt, and he couldn’t have that, no sir!

Just thinking about him make her flush with warmth and sent nervous swirls around her bellybutton. What should she say? She’d already spoken to Roxy about the problem, and while Jane had been concerned that the two of them were going out, or at the very least, flirting, her best friend had assured her that this was not the case.

The young woman desperately wanted to know what was going on in his head behind those crooked glasses and big, false grin. Something about his mystique intrigued her more, and she wondered how it was possible to know someone so well and yet not know him at all.

Another memory flashed behind her eyes as she failed to concentrate on her homework this Saturday, and she vaguely remembered her friend leaving her side for only a few minutes, returning with a knot on the side of his head and blood from a scraped knee, and she had rushed to get him to a bathroom for damp paper towels. He’d tripped, he explained, hastily rolling his socks back in place, forcing her attention there. She could’ve sworn that was a handle of something, like the steak knives they used at home. But he said a branch had just gotten stuck in his shoe, and because they were seven and it hadn’t been very important at the time, Jane simply forgot about it and focused on making sure Jake wasn’t hurt too badly.

Jane knew she wasn’t as smart as Dirk, always tinkering with some gadget or another, sketching out buildings and diagrams, acing all of his classes without thinking about it, and expecting the same of his friends. Dirk always seemed so aware of the world around him, and when she’d asked, somewhere in their playground days, if Jake was a little…off, he’d responded by saying that Jake was certainly unique, and maybe a little bit off-kilter, but he was perfect regardless, and almost moments after saying that, Jake returned to their sides, mud splashed all over his little glasses and on his olive-skinned cheeks, grubby hands taking their wrists and leading them to the area he’d dug himself, just next to a rabbit hole. Bidding them to be quiet, he made faint, soft clicking noises, and a rabbit as well as a foal approached. The green-eyed boy coerced them with rough hands to come closer to his friends and then gave them an opportunity to pet them before they scurried off, and Jane remembered being in awe of him.

He couldn’t have been afraid at all, because it was thought that animals could smell fear, or at the very least sense it somehow. In the same manner, when he arrived at her house toting fresh venison days later, she couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that this boy, so gentle and caring towards those animals, had killed and skinned them just as easily as he’d called them under his muddy palms.

But still, she needed to know more. He had grown into his frame so handsomely, yet another perk for the growing crush she had developed for her friend, and she had to figure him out like Dirk had, but in her own way. She couldn’t just read Jake’s eye-twitches and nervous hair-ruffles, but she’d talk the truth out of him slowly if she became his girlfriend.

Well, if she could find him first. After her third failed attempt at contacting Jake, she texted Roxy, fairly certain that she’d be getting drunk or visiting her mother and sister, so she wasn’t concerned upon having no reply. However, she had never been one to give up! Conversations with Dirk were strange, but easy, and he seemed to be happy to discuss his gizmos with her, however terse and vocabulary-intensive those speeches ended up becoming. She dialed the younger Strider with a grin, moving from her homework to the kitchen to whip up something to eat while she talked.

“Why hello there, Mister Strider,” Jane chirped at her friend, shuffling through her cabinets for a pan, making a noise similar to a squeak as she stood back up and paced to the stovetop. “How’re you?”

“Nothing to complain about here,” Strider answered as she effortlessly put oil onto the pan and turned up the heat of the gas stove. “And you?”

“A little bored, I guess,” Jane swapped the phone from one ear to the next as she went through her fridge for the chicken she’d left marinated the previous evening. “You heard from Miss Lalonde and Mister English today?”

“Roxy’s home, I guess,” Dirk’s audio was rift with noises of some sample or another and the familiar music of a video game that they had probably played together. “Jake’s over at his cousin’s house.” Her nose scrunched up as she took out an onion and began cutting it just moments before tossing it into the oiled pan, which hissed loudly at the new addition.

“Which cousin?” As she started cubing her chicken and wondering if there was still lettuce for salad or whether she’d have to make green bean stir-fry to go with this.

“Jade,” The quiet mashing of buttons told her that she didn’t have his whole attention, but he didn’t have hers either, and just having someone to talk to made the time pass more quickly. “You know, partying with the college kids or something.”

She huffed. Although she liked Jake’s reckless attitude and supposed thrill of adventure, she didn’t like seeing him sickly and exhausted, as he tended to be after these weekend trips.

“I just hope he’s not lying passed out in a ditch somewhere,” Jane added, getting a bright red spatula from a drawer and tousling her chicken around in the pan. “I know he can take care of himself, but sometimes, you just can’t help but to worry.”

“Yeah,” Strider replied, game noises shifting to the sounds of metal clinks and later the whirr of a drill. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”

-

The young man had to at least commend the police taskforce for being very thorough. They had rid he and his partner of any and all weaponry, shaken them down, and even unlacing their rubber-soled, metal-toed shoes and peeling their socks off to make sure they had no hidden knives or needles. Roxy played coy with the officers, earning smiles and hoots even as they shut she and Jake in an interrogation block, comfortably locked in the cement, iron-bolted, window-less room in the dark, but at least faux holo-lights and chairs to sit in, molded out of hard plastics and thus containing no screws or pliable wood for turning into picks or weapons against their captors.

“Well, this is a fine mess we’re in, ain’t it,” Roxy said without any anger or frustration, just sounding sleepy. “Betcha they won’t be keepin’ us long though, Jakey-boy.”

“Oh, ha, ha, do have a jolly good laugh at my expense. English has gone and ballsed-up the situation once again, good fellows,” He moped, falling into the chair with a long, unprompted yawn. “Strider’s going to kill me.”

A few hours passed, and the holo-light flashed with the time of three p.m., not that either of this cell’s occupants noticed. They’d begun to doze off around nine, about two hours after their placement in the second basement in the main facility of the Hearthcove Police Complex, one basement below the storage for cleaning supplies. It was a five-floor building (seven, including the basements), complete with a cafeteria and visitation floor, the regular blocks, with men and women’s wards (floor 2), a separate floor for the exceptionally dangerous criminals (floor 3), a floor for therapeutic sessions and psychological analysis (floor 4), and a floor for general management (floor 5). To the left of this facility was the Hearthcove Investigations Headquarters, and an observation tower, and to the right was the Central Hospital, housing the mentally disturbed from its neighboring facility and also the public on its’ top floors was rather reputable, and they had high success rates in having previous prisoners mentally readjusted for civilian life. However, it seemed an agent from the HIH had come to interrogate these two, her entrance stirring them suddenly.

A consort? Jake thought to himself, sneaking a glance at his partner, her face reading with just as much surprise as his own. It wasn’t very often the consorts worked in the HIH, although it wasn’t unheard of.

“Hello,” She had a soft, lilting voice, and bright yellow locks, styled in an almost childish bob, and golden eyes, her dark purple, almost black suit had an eerie glow to it in the false light and she had brought yet another chair with her along with a briefcase of sorts. “I’m Casey; I’ll be making the…peaceful transactions today.” Taking a seat, she seemed unperturbed by the fact that both Jake and Roxy refused to scoot closer to her, and seemed to be rather jovial about the whole situation, rather than panicked.

“Try ta take it slow for Jakey-boy, kay? He’s got a lil’ bit of an accent,” She sent the consort a small wink, earning a smile for her efforts.

“Oh, bully on you! My speaking pattern is no less tolerable on the ears than yours is,” He defended himself a little before their attention was focused on the coughing blonde consort.

“We recently identified the subjects,” Both Roxy and Jake groaned. They’d been through this process only one other time, but separately, back before they ran missions together, and the debriefing, ‘why did you do it’ phase was always taxing. Of course it was their job, what did you expect them to say? She gave the detailed life-stories of the Crew members that they’d killed, and shocked them by saying that she believed they had deserved it, but she still wanted to know why, and there was no good answer for that.

Jake and Roxy gave no straight answers, and sometimes no answers at all, and before even two hours could pass, Casey the consort had become frustrated, and decided to pull in someone a little more…destructive.

“It’s a shame we couldn’t be friends,” She actually seemed genuinely disappointed as the two men came in, one of them immediately kicking Jake out of his chair and onto the floor. Roxy winced before smiling at their new pals.

                                   

“Well, c’mon. ‘Fraid to hit girls or somethin’?” A slap shut her mouth rather quickly, and she could only hope they would get bored before the sun fell, because no matter how fast Jake’s cousins were, they couldn’t just crash the place at five in the afternoon.

She only did as she was taught while they shouted at her for answers, raising her arms over her face and saying back was the easiest, but holding back screams proved a bit more difficult when they got creative.

Jake was made of tougher stuff than her, though, and it showed in his glare, his urge to just stand up and snap their necks obvious through those green eyes.

They left not a moment too soon at six o’clock, Jake spitting at the door as they left, almost snarling. “If it didn’t mean I would be stuck here for longer than is absolutely necessary, I’d’ve beaten them until they were ruddy in the face and crying for mother,” Jake hissed, his friend coming up beside him on shaky legs and using the edge of her shirt to wipe his glasses clean.

“I know, Jake,” Roxy assured, not using a nickname to signify that this was serious and that he truly did need to calm down a little bit. “I know.”

-

Dirk remembered a terrible liar.

The green-eyed boy was always making up some story or another, about going to visit his cousin and her grandpa, or visiting his other cousin and his friend to play Cowboys and Indians, and he knew that those bruises were not simply from short romps in the woods. Besides that, Hillsborough wasn’t exactly a forest-like environment, and Farlo wasn’t renowned for its jungles either.

Brown as a nut, his eyes stood out even more for that fact, and his messy, dark hair was charming, so as much as Dirk wanted to know, he knew it wasn’t his place to ask. His friend was strange, and hurt often, so he thought maybe it had been his family.

When he was seven, he’d learned that Jake had no family. Then, it had piqued his curiosity and made him respect his friend even more for doing so much. His parents were still paying for he and his brother from beyond the grave, having left them with millions of boondollars in inheritance, including all of his gadgets, and his apartment in Hearthcove City, just a few blocks from Jake’s place – he only got to go there for the first time when was eight; Jake had insisted upon playing there, saying that his house was boring.

It was when they were ten, however, that Dirk truly wondered what was going on with him. Obviously, he was hiding something…but what? What did he feel like he couldn’t tell him as his best friend? But Jake had stumbled over to his house late one evening, his brother having just left, holding his head and looking terrible, blood all over his favorite skull-branded t-shirt. “Shit,” Dirk cursed like his brother cursed, ushering his friend inside and running as quickly as his short, skinny legs would allow. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Took a nasty fall is all,” Jake laughed a little bit, wiping sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his t-shirt. “No need to get your britches in a knot.”

“Jake, you’re bleeding all over my carpets. I reserve the right to freak out if I want to,” The blonde got a first aid kit and a dark towel so that his brother wouldn’t be able to complain about. “What are you doing here anyways? You ought to be at a hospital.”

“I had to make sure you were very well alright,” The green-eyed idiot said with a strange half-smile, and Dirk wondered if he was perhaps delusional, so he urged him to keep talking, even if it was about those stupid movies that he liked so much. “What kind of a fool would I be to go home first, to that empty house?” Dirk realized that Jake had a point, and he was glad that he’d come after all, because left on his own, he’d probably be dead before nightfall, and Dirk knew very well that this injury was the result of something more than a bad trip, like he usually explained it as. Even as he was trying to clean his wounds and messily bandage his head and shoulder, it suddenly occurred to him that Jake was probably lonelier than he let on, even if he typically seemed to thrive.

“Hey, you’re gonna be alright,” The blonde said the words not only for Jake but for himself, needing to hear them. “You want anything? Food? Water?”

“An aspirin will do, my friend,” His accent was thick and staggered with drowsiness, his brows pinched in pain from the wounds. Dirk had come back with two pills and a glass of water, just before saying that he was going to bring him a change of clothes. “Thank you,” Jake rasped and laid back against the couch the blonde had dragged him to. He pawed at his own wounds with a wince, glad that they had been shallow cuts.

What bad luck, running into an agent without his rifle or a loaded pistol. His father and grandfather alike would be ashamed. Luckily, he was swift, and never forgot to hide two switchblades – one under the lock of his left foot, and one in the pocket of his cargo-pants. The agent had been rather foolish, in his opinion, taking his ability for granted because of his stature. But Jake had been just as foolhardy, dodging his shots and then later his knife without much thought, earning a shallow gash on his shoulder and a missing clump of hair where he’d grazed his head.

But Dirk was safe, and the agent was dead, so everything was okay. He probably should’ve been more concerned over the loss of a human life, but his friend’s safety took priority. He would proud to die fighting for such a worthy cause, except for the fact that death would mean leaving Strider and Jane unprotected, and he couldn’t have that. He’d been given a large responsibility in protecting not just one, but two people, and he couldn’t disappoint his grandfather by going off and getting killed by the Crew.

Dirk returned just as the aspirin – strong stuff – started to work and he smiled as he offered to leave while he changed. “S’alright,” Jake answered truthfully, and upon being asked if he needed any help declined, shrugging out of his shirt slowly before putting on one of the blonde’s favorites, a deep orange number with swirls forming a pattern on it. His pants were dark and satiny and easy to get into, and Dirk had the nerve to snicker at his jungle-themed briefs, which he dismissed with very little argument.

“So,” Strider helped his friend settle on the couch before sitting on the space his legs weren’t occupying. “You gonna tell me what really happened?”

“Ruins the surprise,” Jake murmured back in retaliation, smiling. “All you need to know is that I got hurt, and it is certainly not a matter of your concern.”

“Damn it, Jake,” The boy cursed and the brunette laughed. “You know this isn’t over, right? I’m going to figure out why you got hurt and then I’m going to mess ‘em up. If it was those assholes at school, I’m toss them in the ocean.”

Jake merely laughed and put his calves on Dirk’s thighs, whispering goodnight just before closing his eyes and going to sleep.

True to his word, he never forgot, and he certainly never let it drop.

From that point on, Dirk had begun putting pieces together. It seemed like he was really guarded about something, and part of the reason he hadn’t wanted him over at his house when he was small was because of the sheerly alarming supply of guns and ammunition he had stashed away in a dark recess of his basement (he had only showed him that when they were sixteen, last year), and his thought that Dirk didn’t want to see his bedroom, plastered from floor to ceiling with posters of his interests, afraid he might ridicule him. Strider had assured him that he didn’t think less of him for liking such things, even if he poked fun at him sometimes.

The summer they were eleven it was scrapes across the knuckles, a small scar just visible at his collar, a few burns. Twelve, more scars – larger, this time, and a burn that looked suspiciously like a narrowly avoided bullet had whizzed over his skin. Thirteen, a broken leg. His excuses kept piling up, and he knew he couldn’t have been just playing over at his cousin’s house or hanging out with Roxy; he was involved in something dangerous. He tried to beat it out of him when they were fourteen, but Jake was no wimp, and he wasn’t a wrestling superstar, so it had ended in the two of them refusing to speak to each other for a time. Jane was wondering why her friends wouldn’t share airspace and Jake just kept smiling right along like he wasn’t dealing drugs or becoming a streetwalker or something.

That was also the first summer his brother had just given up on keeping sturdy communications with him, and when he did, it was almost always to report that he and John were still doing well, and they had moved in together in Hillsborough at John’s house. It wasn’t so strange; his bro had already managed to go to school there somehow, and had spent more time with Egbert in North Westdale for longer than Dirk could recall. But the coincidence that Jake was suddenly talking about his brother all the time seemed a bit much.

The three of them knew something that he didn’t.

It was useless to ask his brother about it, but he’d finally managed to analyze Jake as best was possible, and what the inflection behind each word he said meant. And something in the way he joked about protecting him told him it wasn’t really a joke.

He was something of a secret agent (or something), charged with protecting him.

Dirk hated the thought.

What he hated more was that he’d let the lying continue for so long. If he’d just go ahead and tell Jake that he knew, maybe he could help. Maybe it would convince him to stop getting himself thrown into danger for his sake.

But he knew Jake, and that would never happen. He’d go out in a blaze of glory for his honor. The only solution, then, was to learn how to protect him.

Jake certainly didn’t make it very easy, though.

-

Nine o’clock couldn’t come quickly enough.

The three of them had arisen at around noon after dozing the morning away, John refreshing them easily by making breakfast just before Jade and Dave woke up. He was all smiles over the steam of pancakes, bacon, and eggs, and then began speaking.

“So, Jade and I have the maps completely marked up, so we’ll refine our plans after we’ve eaten,” John said the words around a cup of coffee, sipping quietly. “And Dad wired me the cash last night, so everything’s ready to go on that front. You guys good as far as weaponry and ammo? If not, I’ll give some guys a call.”

“I’m good,” Dave replied around a mouthful of eggs, pointing his fork at the blue-eyed, buck-toothed morning person. He used swords typically on missions, and occasionally short knives, and so as long as he took a few minutes to make sure they were sharp and polished, he had no need to concern himself with replacing his weaponry. The quality of the blade made such a thing possible, and he thanked John for taking him to a shop where they were well-known for crafting them to be long-lasting, instead of buying the shitty ones from the corner store like he had when they were first running missions, breaking probably a hundred of the damn things.

“I’ve got more ammo in my car, so I’m good too.” Jade made sure to swallow her bacon before speaking and washed it down with a swig of coffee, and they carried out the rest of their breakfast with little chatter before ambling to the living room, where they cleared the table and laid down a map laden in blue and green marks, circles, x-marks, and little scribbled words. “Alright, let’s get started.”

“Well, first things first, we’re going to need to get as close to the complex as we can without grabbing their attention,” John pointed the first circle on the map, a large blue thing centered on the house. “Two separate cars, however. I’ll be making the negotiations involving cash just before you two get him out, which’ll make it look like it was a true break-out; they don’t lose face, we get Jake and Roxy back, and everyone wins.” He grinned, going back to pointing. “Obviously, I’m in blue here. But Jade will explain about the green and the second map.”

“A blueprint of the Main Faculties building, where they’re being held in B-two interrogation,” The diagram showed fire escapes, hidden doors, and the easiest way to slip through the gates, green markings everywhere with little red, dotted movements coinciding with Dave’s entrance. Figures scrawled on the side approximated the numbers of guards and security cameras. “Rose is going to shut down the system when we first enter, so we’ll have about ten minutes before they get it up again; plenty of time for you to snag the keys and for me to shoot the cameras that might incriminate us. I’m going to have John put a word in for Jake and Roxy’s files to be terminated as well, if he can push it.”

“Sounds good,” Dave replied calmly. “What time does our operation begin?”

“Around nine. John’s going to arrive around two to make negotiations, and if he’s not done by then, I’ll burn my socks.” She winked at her friend, tying up her hair lazily. “Well, might’s well start getting ready.” Heading to her car to get her rifle and a change of clothes from the duffle, she left John and Dave continuing to bicker about the fine-tuning of the mission. John only stayed around to bicker for a little while, however, as he had to pack and catch a bullet train to Hearthcove City to arrive anywhere near on time. He brought his things in a sports’ bag, and wished Dave good luck before heading out, his best friend doing the same.

Jade returned to clean her guns on the couch with the sulking blonde and she smiled a little bit. “You know, you’d feel better if you talked to him about it.”

“Shut up,” Dave stood up abruptly to go to his room and prepare in his own way. “You sound like Lalonde.”

Green eyes scrunched up as she pulled the gun apart and laughed. “Well, that’s great. Rose is really smart. I’d love to sound like her more often.”

Grumbling from the stairs, he replied, “So weird,” Before hopping in the still-damp shower from where John had just stepped out.

-

Lacquered orchid nails typed in flashes against the keys before she paused, taking a moment to sigh. Her sister had gotten captured, and that was certainly stressful enough, but now her friends were going in to reclaim the agents and it was her duty to make sure the mission went successfully. She would try to crash the Hearthcove Police Complex’s security system for at least ten minutes, but if her calculations proved accurate, she might be able to squeeze out up to fifteen. Loops, patterns, and the disabling of alarms were the main focus, but the ability to go untraced was also a matter of concern. To throw them off the trail, she was in a different location, but her codes were encrypted enough to ruin their quick-tracing either way. After she’d successfully set everything up, having been informed of what her role in tonight’s events was to be this morning by John, she sat back and decided to relax. No use in being riled up on a night when she needed to be in top form.

She’d just finished making tea and putting on a disc of classical collections when her headset buzzed, and she clicked a small button to the view the holographic picture of her dark-haired, blue-eyed friend. “Hello, John. I suppose you would like well wishes before your mission begins?”

“Yeah, I guess, something like that, ha ha,” The male laughed easily, sounding not at all as nervous as he should’ve been for the day’s events. “I was mostly calling to see if you’d talk to Dave; y’know, make sure he’s okay with everything. I think this whole mess with Jake is starting to make him freak out about Dirk.”

Rose laughed around the cup, steam flooding up her nostrils and the hot liquid scalding her tongue just a tad. “That’s unsurprising, really. His strange overprotection of Dirk is probably some buried instinct of his that he’s not proud of.”

“Yeah, yeah – go work your psycho-analysis on him. Despite all his griping, I think he’d really like to hear from you.” John assured her with a smile, which she returned. “And maybe he’d like you to talk to Dirk, too. I think he might try to get…‘involved’.”

“Understood, fearless leader. Good luck this afternoon.” Rose saluted her friend, who grumbled something about disliking that title before fazing out of vision, and she began her second call with a vocal command, following the dial with another long sip of her slowly cooling tea. “Hello, Strider.”

“Christ, it’s you,” The other blonde’s exasperation was written all over his face, a towel slung around his shoulders and a shirt halfway up his arms. “Are you here to make me confess my undying love for those of the male persuasion or some shit? Or, I guess, if you’d logically be calling me, to talk about this stupid fucking mission we’re on to bail English out?”

“Mostly the latter, I’m afraid,” Her bobbed, blonde hair fell in her face as she leaned back, so she blew it away between talking and sipping at her beverage. “I suppose I wanted to know how you felt about the situation, with regards to your brother.”

“I think English could’ve not royally fucked up and Dirk wouldn’t be trying to text John to find me or something. I mean, he’s not stupid, I knew he’d figure it out, but now’s certainly not the time for him to wonder what his bull-headed best friend has been up to his whole life. Because he’s not stupid, I expect him to keep his fucking head down and ask questions later, so we can fix this up without more collateral damage.” He hissed out a lot of the words, shimmying into his underwear and pants with the holographic projection turned off, flicking it back on when he’d finished, and was looping a belt around his dark black suit pants.

“You really ought to tell him about yourself and what you’ve been doing these past few years,” She suggested and he scoffed. “I think he would be rather proud, and would admire you for doing something he took so long to realize that he wanted to do.”

“Bullshit, Lalonde,” Dave snorted again, yelling down the stairs for Jade and getting a response back before turning back to the camera. “There’s no way turning up out of the blue is going to make him realize all of the sudden I’m some brother of the year or something. Besides that, we have to worry about his raging homo-crush on his protectorate, whom, in case you forgot, is currently in the second basement of the fucking Police Complex. And don’t try to turn this around on me – that is the issue right now. Nothing else.”

Rose resisted the urge to tell him that he was bi-curious and needed to face his internal turmoil before he blew up, and instead complied. “Well, what’s your primary concern? The very real prospect that your brother will soon be attempting to learn how to kill to protect someone, or the fact that he’s doing it because he may or may not be in love with his best friend?”

“They’re the same damn problem,” Dave answered, leaning over himself to tie his shoes before sheathing his swords, having recently finished sharpening and polishing them. “Anyone with eyes – except English and Egbert, the two near-sighted nerds – can see that Dirk hangs on every word he says. And if he didn’t like the kid so much, this issue wouldn’t have even come up. He’s probably been at the heels of it just as long as I have. All I’m saying is, as good as English is, he’s kind of unstable, and I’m sure as hell not going to just leave him with my brother to teach him this business. They’ll get their asses handed to them, first mission, no questions.”

She finished her tea with a satisfied sigh, just before raising her brow at his last words. “Why do you say that? Jake has a ninety-five percent success-rate, and ninety-eight percent shooting accuracy. Besides which, he’s trained in several focuses of hand-to-hand combat. Is this, dare I ask, a trust issue? Is Dave Strider overprotective of his little brother?”

“I wish I was there so I could sock you one in the face,” He said back, his image bobbing up and down as he plodded down the steps. She giggled; he sure was talking big tonight, probably a psychological preparation for their mission. “All I’m saying is, English might be, you know, slipping. You know as well as I do he hasn’t been all there lately.”

Taking a moment to analyze the words, steepling her fingers and settling back at her desk, she pulled up the monitors of the complex, one security camera capturing John as he walked to the premises right on time. Jade and Dave were loading up the car and preparing for their journey – it was a seven-some hour drive to Hearthcove City, and only if they were driving very quickly – so she waited until they had finished chatting to continue, greeting Jade with a quick hello. “I think his current emotional tension is out of control. My sister has tried to lower it, to no avail, and putting on this farce can’t be good for his psyche. Besides that matter, you know who keeps contacting him, right?”

“I fucking wish I didn’t know,” He and Jade both shook their heads at the thought, the woman driving even shuddering a little from what she could see in the corner of Dave’s holo-cam. “And he’s holding up well despite it, but that’s what I’m saying. He’s got enough shit on his plate to deal with my little shit. My bro, my problem.” 

You act like that’s such a huge problem, and that you won’t do it,” Jade bopped her friend on the head, sticking her tongue out at him. “You’re a good bro, Dave, if you’d pull your head out of your ass for five minutes.

Dave sulked and Rose laughed softly. “Both of you are welcome to kindly shut the fuck up. Where’s John the asshole when you need him?” The question was rhetorical, but they both giggled anyways. “Well, I guess we’re getting this show on the road then. If we decide that talking to each other is a stupid endeavor and we want to be analyzed for more psychoses by our crazy, old cat-lady, knitting needles and all, I guess we’ll give you a buzz. We do have some serious rubber to burn, after all, and three hours before Jade and I swap seats.”

“Be safe,” She wished them luck before their connection was severed, and as if sensing that the call had been terminated, Jaspers prowled into her bedroom, and curled around her ankles as she started clicking and typing away. “Still scared of big, bad Dave? He can’t hurt you,” She whispered, and when the other cat, Frigglish, her sister’s cat, strode in, she felt bad and let him curl next to Jaspers. “Don’t worry, boys, we’ll get her back.” Rose’s orchid eyes focused on the camera feed focused on the door of their cell, anger rising in her throat that she quelled for the sake of her mission tonight.

-

The consort came back in to observe the two of them with some elements of first aid, but they didn’t look upon her too kindly. “I don’t suppose either of you are in any mood to talk,” It was around seven pm as according to the holographically projected clock on the wall, and having an hour to stew in shallow wounds and frustration of a failed mission probably had no effect in loosening their lips. Sighing, she put the box down and then stood around, watching as the young man stood and patched up the blonde girl before tying his own bandages against her assurances that she would do it. Standing against a wall, waiting for them to possibly slip up, she finally broke the murmurs and whispers with an interjection. “You two…you have a lawyer or something looking out for you?” Green and pink eyes flashed up and she knew she had her attention. “Some guy, real tall, real sharp. Somebody upstairs said he’s pulling strings to get you guys out.”

There was a pause and they made no visible reaction other than more tension in their body language. “Why are you telling us this?”

“I don’t know, actually,” Casey the consort shrugged, sadness in her eyes. “I guess, in a way, I want you guys to walk out of here. But at the same time, I really do like my job. I guess I’ll just have to keep trying.”

“We fancy ours as well,” Jake told her and she grimaced. “How long has the ol’ boy been here?” Roxy elbowed him softly to get him to stop talking, but he murmured, “Well, she’s looking a bit hackled, yeah? It seems worth the effort to at least make a splash of conversation.”

“Last I heard, since this afternoon,” The woman told the teenagers with this faraway expression. “Well, I’ve got to go. Best of luck to you two. And not a word about this leaves this room, alright?”

“Cross my heart,” Jake winked and she chuckled just before slipping away and leaving the two of them in the dimly lit cell once again. “Happy news.”

“Can’t relax yet,” Roxy chided him and he nodded in agreement. “Nothing’s set in stone.”

“However, no need to have ruffled feathers, my girl,” The young man told his friend, who rolled her eyes at his speech.

-

He had arrived at two-oh-five, to be precise, dressed in a deep blue suit with a green-and-white pinstriped shirt and a dark blue tie, shedding his coat after introductions had begun and he and Officer Javier talked their way up to a comfortable room on the fifth floor.

Of course, pleasantries had to be exchanged first to make him comfortable, open up, and so forth. Upon delving into business, the man started to shortly lose his temper and refused to accept dealings with money at all, so John had stood up and demanded that he seek his superior, leading a plucky, smiling older man to come in, skin dark and eyes soft.

“Name’s Wallace Vernon, but you can call me Wally, or W.V.,” He’d told the young man with the blue eyes, taking a seat slowly. “Now, what is it that you wanted to talk about?”

John had tried to quell his frustration in dealing with the officer previous for the past two hours, feeling the waste of time drain his mental state. He couldn’t afford to be exhausted yet – it was going to be a long time. “I’ll keep this brief, and sorry for being kind of an asshole, I’m a little tired right now. I’m John Egbert – yes, the Egbert, of the Alliance – and you have some of our members locked up. We’d like them back.”

“Oh my,” The man hummed a little bit, wiping sweat from his brow. “Well, that is a dilemma. And how do you propose we go about dealing with such a situation?”

The blue-eyed man sighed in relief, flopping into his chair happily to hear this. “Finally, someone who actually listens. I’m not saying you have to do it for free; I’ve brought you plenty of cash. I need you to let our hacker do her job and act panicked, like you weren’t expecting anything, and a couple of agents are going to bust in here – you’re to make the guard patchy this evening and let those two in B-two walk free. Explain it all as a big mystery which you will solve by strengthening prison security tomorrow, and everyone wins.”

“Other than money, what other motivation would I have for doing such a thing?” WV asked him and he put his fingers to a steeple, leaning forward to read John’s face. In all honesty, he would’ve liked the money – it meant he could reward his staff and redecorate the place a bit – but he felt deeper meaning from the boy and he was curious. He also didn’t mind much about letting those two go, it was those below him that had assured him they were valuable assets, but all he saw were children with fire in their eyes getting it beaten out of them.

“Would it help if I said it would help from tearing several districts’ borders apart?” He offered with an exasperated shrug.

Well, that certainly brought perspective. “How much are we talking?”

“No less than two million,” The dark haired twenty year old opened a briefcase full of colorful boondollars and the dark-skinned man pulled a sort of face. “The operation begins at nine o’clock sharp. Until then, we go through the motions of having a diplomatic meeting for whatever reason, and I leave the premises to meet my friends an hour before security goes down. I can’t promise people won’t be hurt, but I can promise no deaths.”

They shook on it in the privacy of his office at five pm before continuing to ‘discuss’ politics and money for the following three hours.

John left at the time he’d said he would, meeting Jade and Dave just a mile outside of the Complex’s gates. “You guys ready for this?” He asked them. He, unfortunately, could have no part in this operation, but would instead be monitoring things and manning the car for when they and their additional passengers had to rush in and get away.

Dave fist bumped him, leaving the driver seat door open for him to climb in and adjust for his abnormally long legs. “As ready as we’ll ever be. You’ll be back with gas and supplies in time, right?”

He rolled blue eyes at him as he closed the door. “I’ve been doing this a hell of a lot longer than you, Dave. I’ll be back in time, dick.”

“Asshole,” The blonde retorted by sticking up his middle finger while the vehicle whirred off in the distance. He and Jade laid low until they had further sign from Rose, and when the lights flickered, her voice buzzed, and a door in the gate opened seemingly by itself, so they took off in a sprint, the car’s engine a faint whirr in the distance as John returned just in time.

He could only watch and wait.

-

“Damn it,” Strider used the handle of one sword in his right hand and the back of a sword in his left, batting guards out of his way. “I thought John told this asshole to lighten the guard up.”

“This is light,” Jade hissed, using her gun to fire blanks at their knees, and also to knock them out of the way with brute force. “Turn left up ahead, then take the stairs.”

“Yeah, I know, I fucking remember,” He replied, kicking a guard out of the way just before kicking the door to the stairs and holding it open for his partner. She threw a smoke bomb as he closed the door and they started running flight after flight to Basement one, the keypad shut down thanks to Rose, rushing down the hall, and continuing to the second flight of typically-blocked doors, checking the time.

“Ten minutes left,” A voice came to them over the headsets, and they rushed even more quickly, refusing to bother with checking their weaponry, casualties, or even wiping their own sweat.

This was the heat of the mission, the moments that counted most, and they couldn’t afford to mess this up. “Shit, Rose,” Dave slipped out his affectionate terminology of calling people by last names when he got tense. “You can’t buy us five more minutes?”

“I’ll try my best, but this isn’t exactly a walk in the park, Dave,” She ground the words out while they kept knocking guards out, the Strider taking the bulk out for a time while Jade rushed to get the three, old-fashioned, metal-keys to Jake and Roxy’s cell and open it, watching her back. The hall was empty at last in two more minutes, and no one was dead in compliance with John’s wishes to keep his word for negotiations.

Jade’s rattling of the keys in the locks brought the two waiting in the doorframe, neither of them incapacitated, if a little worse for the ware. “Let’s move! She ordered and four pairs of feet pattered out of there in the remaining few minutes, the stairs and smoky hallway proving no problem, but reaching the gate proved difficult. On their way in, hysteria had aided their plight, but a new wave of guards to avoid and knock out proved tiresome; however, Jake and Roxy were assets granted to them in this mess. Jade tossed her cousin a pistol, and Dave handed the other blonde a knife, assuring them that John had their proper weaponry back in the car.

They had to duck the searchlight and barrel into the bushes, cursing and prowling, splitting up to throw the cops off. As soon as they could make it back to the car without drawing too much attention to themselves, they rushed off in the direction of North Westdale, John taking the backstreets for about an hour, the clock reading ten-thirty.

“Thanks, Rose; you really saved our asses back there,” John told her over the quiet stuffiness of the car, Jake remaining quiet out of self-preservation, Dave’s frustration rolling around in the small quarters, Jade’s calm presence trying to soothe the tension, and Roxy trying to doze off.

“Don’t worry about it, John,” Rose replied with a little smile. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be resting now. Glad to see that everyone is safe and sound.”

“Yeah, me too,” He said honestly, hurriedly finishing the drive back to Hillsborough.

As glad as he was that everyone was okay, and that this mission had been a success, John Egbert was not at all looking forward to Sunday morning.

Chapter Text

By the time they had arrived in Hillsborough, morning was breaking and the sleeping members in the car roused themselves to get out, stretch their legs, and go into the house owned by John, who was rather tired after the drive, and Dave, who was grumpy and still emitting angry waves at the green-eyed teen. Stepping between them before things could get ugly, Jade told them to wait until tomorrow to fight.

Dave slunk in behind John, kicking the back of his legs and earning a slur of words back, the two of them going up to crash in Dave’s room so Jade could have John’s, Roxy could have the rarely-used and generally cluttered guest room, and Jake could sleep on the couch. 

Jake slept uneasily, panicked about matters now that he’d been released from captivity. This slip-up had resulted in Dirk’s involvement, and that was a personal failure for him. At around ten, on a shaky four hours of sleep, he slipped out of the house to go the shooting range. He knew it was at least a bus ride from the house, so he made sure to shuffle through his belongings for his wallet, and even his phone, as a precaution. On his way there, he texted his friend a quick good morning, and even called Jane, pitching the joy in his tone up to an eight instead of the two he felt.

She asked if he was feeling all right, and he replied that he was peachy-keen, just another lie in the pile of falsities in his life. Jane told him to be careful, and to drink lots of water and he laughed, promising her that he would. Dirk had texted him back by the time he’d arrived at the range, saying, Call me, and he bit back a whine.

He walked off of the bus and up to the door, greeted like an old friend. Jake didn’t live here, but he was no stranger to Joshua Stumpy’s shooting range in Hillsborough, North Westdale. Walking into the range and asking for the same pistols as always, he paid for three hours, around one-hundred rounds, and tried to focus his attention on black circles. Goggles pulled over his face and mufflers over his ears, he fired them off – automatic rounds, preparation for the recoil, don’t think about anything else. His aim was still skewed, he fumbled to reload the magazine, and when he’d only been there ten minutes, he started dropping bullets and just slumped over, attracting Joshua’s attention.

“Hey buddy,” Josh hurried over to see Jake peeling the goggles off, and pushing his glasses out of the way to cry just a little bit. “You alright? Your finger get caught or something? That’s not like you at all.”

“No, sir, it’s just, I’ve,” He laughed bitterly, trying to hold back the tears and failing miserably. “I’ve rather gone and fucked up,” Josh called for the girl working the desk to bring a towel or something, but before she could return, a blonde with ruffled hair, dark pants and a red-and-white t-shirt stomped in and kicked him in the face, a girl in jeans and a green hoodie just behind him. 

“Damn straight you fucked up,” Dave, his voice as flat as ever, stood up and brushed himself off like he hadn’t just assaulted someone in public. Jade quickly reassured Joshua that they’d be leaving, handing him more money and asking politely if he’d clean up for Jake.

“Dave, stop.” Jade slapped him hard across the face, jostling the sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. “He had a bad night. We’ve all been there. Just look at him! He’s breaking down right now.”

 

“So is my brother, but you don’t see him crying his ass off,” The words seemed to startled Jake out of his reverie. “Yeah, you know, him? He’s probably been eating away at himself trying to figure out when you’ll just come out and tell him what your real job is. So he can watch your back. So he can know his best fucking friend is alive every night without a dumb little message where you put your best poker face on and play pretend.” 

“Dave, stop it!” Jade grabbed his shoulders and looked him hard in the eyes, despite the shades blocking them. “Jake is not John. Dirk and Jake have to talk about this, and while you might not want to talk about your issues, taking them out on him won’t solve the problem!” He shrugged out of her hold and walked away, noting that he’d take the bus back home so she could have the car. She wiped away Jake’s tears and shushed him with a hug before leading him to her vehicle, where she started driving slowly back to Hearthcove. “Sorry about that. He’s been sort of…worked up. Sometimes he just deflects. I think he’s seeing a lot of his personal inadequacies in you right now, and it’s making him angry.”

Jake shrugged and slumped in his chair, trying to text his friend back and analyze what he’d been told. Should he really talk to Dirk about the business? About getting training to help him on missions? Reveal that he’d been lying for the past twelve years? But Dirk already knew, and what did that mean he thought about him? Thinking about it all made him think about something else.

Jane. Shit. What was he supposed to do about her side of the equation? She couldn’t know anything, no; he was already fighting a losing battle with Dirk, but there was no reason for the Crocker girl to get caught in this mess because of his screw-up.

“You wanna talk about it?” Jade asked her cousin, her eyes flickering towards him with sleep heavy in them. “Or maybe I should talk about things first?”

“No, it’s quite alright.” Jake replied, feeling nauseous. “I just, everything feels a bit tossed, really. It seems I’ve rather confused myself over a lot of things, so much so that it’s become a nasty thorn in my derrière.” He paused for a moment before making sweeping gestures with his hands. “I mean, if Dirk knows – if he’s known – am I supposed to just train him and pretend like I’m not going to try to protect him from everything, including myself? And then the other matter is, should I ask Jane out? Or should I wait for her to ask me out? Or maybe I should talk to Dirk? But I feel like that’s the wrong choice, too. Everything’s just…a mess. Strider was right, though, in saying that I ought to be worried about Dirk’s mental facilities. If I’m panicked over all this malarkey, there’s no question that he’s been turning a thousand possibilities over inside that big head of his.”

She blinked and made a little ‘hmm’ noise. “I would worry about just actually sitting down and telling him all the gory details before worrying of what he thinks of you. If he really knows as much as you and Dave seem to think he does, he’s probably already accepted you as is. Now, tell me more about that second issue there.”

He took a moment to think and she worried that maybe he’d clammed up, but his face was contorted with a look, trying to explain things without seeming hopelessly awkward. “I suppose…I believe that I…fancy Jane,” He squirmed a little bit in his seat. “She’s lovely, and I’m almost certain she likes me.”

“I sense a ‘but’ in that sentence,” Jade apprehended with a little click of her tongue. “So what’s stopping you from it?”

Jake rolled his eyes in disbelief at his cousin. “I’m her Protectorate; there’s no way I’d be allowed to court her. Her father would have my head, besides.”

“Well, goodness knows that in our generation we’ve been playing with the rules. I don’t see why you and Jane shouldn’t be able to date each other, unless there’s something else stopping you.” She fixed him with a look and he kept opening and closing his mouth. “If there’s not, then do it. Ask her out. Or say yes when she asks you. It couldn’t hurt.”

The rest of their trip was mostly quiet, sound filling the car in the way of music and absent chatter about nothing in particular. Jake never asked about her story, and he never told her about the other thing holding him back, so they let the elephant in the room go on clouding the air.

Jade highly suspected that it would come back to bite him in the ass later, however.

-

He shouldn’t have been doing this.

Trying to get in contact with his brother was like trying to catch a migrating bird, changing its’ habitat every week to avoid certain death.

But Jake’s terseness and his own inbred paranoia were combining to make him rather cross. Since talking to John on the phone, he’d figured that Jake had done something terribly, horribly wrong, and that even though his bro was probably close enough to comment on it, or to even fill him in and finally tell him what the hell, exactly, was taking place around him, Dave wasn’t going to do that, and it was a little bit disappointing.

Dirk rifled through databases to find his brother’s new phone number, tried to get it from John, but that asshole kept replying with cute little bucktoothed-emotes and winking faces telling him to try again. He dialed, texted, and searched, even going so far as to contemplate buying a car at long last on a whim, only to discover that he didn’t even have enough for a train ticket, a little note from his brother warning him to stop pushing this.

                                                     

Waiting was driving him crazy. Jake still hadn’t called, so he couldn’t talk to him about this mess, or even see if he was okay on holo-cam. He checked in with Roxy as well, making sure she was fine too, and she told him she was going to Swanton for the night and she’d be absent on Monday, pass the word on to Jane. He sighed and did just that, idling away most of Sunday trying to find any extraneous information on Jake English, but it was like he was a whisper in the wind. There was minimal information – birth certificate, identification, and driver’s license – but there were no tickets, no news-stories published about him in his hometown, nothing about him that he didn’t already know.

He supposed he would just have to wait until Monday, and that infuriated him possibly more than anything else did. Dirk felt that for all his research and realization that he deserved to know, or to at least hear from his best friend the reason why he didn’t.

As if aware that he was getting furious for such a reason and he needed a distraction, Jane dialed him on his house holo, and he sidled over, flopping on the couch and answering. “’Sup?”

“Not much, I suppose,” Jane hummed over the phone, probably bored with doing her homework or something similar. “I was just…thinking, I guess.” 

“Well, that makes two of us,” She laughed at that and he smiled a bit to see it. “What are you thinking about, Baking Princess?”

The young woman stuck out her tongue at her friend before drawling into a rant. “Tomorrow, golly gee. I’ve been, sorta, thinkin’ about talking to Jake about, you know, spending some time together, just him and me. Like a date.” She was fiddling with a pencil and her hair, and he tried not to let any emotion show on his face other than an acquiescing smile. “But I wanted to, uhm, make sure I wouldn’t be in the way of you two hanging out or anything.”

Or rather, she wanted to know if Dirk liked him and if she was in the wrong by trying to make a move. She really was a good friend. But he liked Jake enough to see him happy, and if it was Jane instead of him, he thought he might be able to deal with that.

“You don’t need my permission, Princess,” He winked at her and she flushed, trying to retort quickly and failing. “You gotta make the Prince say yes, sweetheart, not his keeper.”

“You’re the best, Dirk!” Jane cheered and a noise in the background startled the both of them, her father calling for dinner or something similar. “If you ever get ahold of him, tell him I say hello, alright?”

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” After terminating the call, he leaned back in his chair and smiled a bit, thinking of the two dorks curled up together watching one of Jake’s stupid movies. Suddenly, another call stopped him from getting up and finding an old project to tinker with, and the ID startled him. “Hey.”

“Hey.” His bro’s voice was still flat, but a little deeper than he remembered, not having actually spoken to the man in some time. “So, you know.”

“Yeah,” There were a million things he wanted to talk to his brother about, if only to hear from him and see how he was doing, but also, more urgently, he wanted to know where Jake was and if he was okay. “How is he?”

“Fine. Headed back your way. I’ll be there next weekend. Don’t do anything stupid, not even ironically.” That was all he’d get, apparently, because just a moment later the call ended, and he was left blinking at the phone, surprised.

So, Dave was coming home for the weekend. He wasn’t entirely sure this was good news. Dirk stood up, whistling for the robo-dog, sidling around the apartment, looking for a wrench and some oil, and tossing thoughts around in his mind. Wondering what his brother would do upon his return plagued his thoughts as he quieted the automated barking and fixed the poor thing’s crooked tail.

Jake never did call, not even as he kept toiling away at different robots – prototypes and rap-bots, and abandoned sprawls of nuts and bolts with hardwiring – and running searches of the internet for more information. The green-eyed young man did text back a little smiley face when he’d made it back home hours later and he rolled his eyes, knowing full-well that he’d have to pull his friend aside to explain everything after school on Monday.

He sighed, flopping on his bed face-first, groaning as his hand hit an alarm and his puppet started cackling from some faraway corner of the apartment. Forcing himself to get up, he fetched Cal, shut the sound off, and then placed the puppet gingerly on a chair in the kitchen before slinking back, clearing his mattress, and flopping properly into a pillow.

What a long day.

-

He returned to the porch of his shared home to find his housemate with a cigarette hanging from his lips. “Thought you were gonna quit or something,” Dave asked, sitting backwards in his chair next to John, who was dressed in lazy shorts and a t-shirt in the unusually warm autumn evening. “Pass me one.”

John complied, handing him a cig and his lighter before taking a slow drag of his own. “I told you, just while Jade was here,” His blue eyes slid closed as the smoke curled around his face. “You know how she gets.”

“Yeah,” The blonde wearing sunglasses at night mumbled back his response around the object before giving the lighter back.

“So, what’re you all pissy about?” John put his feet up on the banister and sort of leaned back with a lazy expression, but his hammer was within reach, should danger be near.

Dave shrugged a bit, putting his arms on the top of the chair’s back and leaning on them, breathing the smoke out of his nose. “Still English and my bro, I guess. Gotta go back and tell him who the fuck I am, teach him how to fight, shit like that.”

He cackled back a little at his friend. “If he’s anything like you, he’ll be a natural, so I’m guessing this is more about Jake screwing up than anything else.”

“You’re the only reason he’s walking these streets a free man,” Strider spoke slowly, his voice back to its carefully trained bass after his annoyed lilt had occurred yesterday. “Can you imagine if he didn’t have rich cousin Egbert to come wipe his ass for him when stuff goes wrong? He’d be ass-backwards in the middle of Hearthcove’s Police Complex wondering how the hell he got there, and fighting for his life in the men’s wing.”

John raised an eyebrow. “Dude, it’s not like you to get this worked up. Don’t you think you’ve passed the point of protective, scary big brother? Dirk’s old enough to find out about our jobs anyways, and Jake’s fuck-up obviously wasn’t going to change that fact.”

“I’m only worried – and hear me out, this is not me being sarcastic and an asshole, like usual – that Jake’s not all there. Seriously,” John gave him a disbelieving look and he went on. “He’s gonna crack, and soon,” The cigarette’s ashes fell on the porch and he cursed lightly, watching to make sure they fizzled out instead of continuing to burn before looking to the ashtray the brunette had placed between them and tapping his lightly overtop it. “I ain’t saying this ‘cause I don’t like the kid, I’m saying it ‘cause I like my bro a hell of a whole lot more, and I’m not entirely sure he’d be ready for dealing with that shit. If they were partners, that’s pretty much all he’d be doing.”

“They’re already best friends,” John said truthfully, breathing out smoke and putting his stub of a cigarette out in the ashtray with a shrug. “You don’t think he’ll try to keep him together anyways?”

It took a moment for Dave to grumble in agreement but he wasn’t done talking either. “All I’m saying is, it’s fucking hard to watch someone’s back when they’re paranoid that the voices are going to get them on top of having an actual reason to feel threatened.”

His friend grimaced, folding his arms behind his head, his lips twisted in thought and his glasses askew on the bridge of his nose. “So you’re worried, too? About, y’know, his ‘family’?”

“They’re the last thing from a fucking family that I’d want, that’s for damn sure,” Dave replied snarkily, putting his cigarette out before running a hand through his hair. “And judging by how exhausted he’s been lately, they aren’t making shit any easier. All I’m saying is, my bro doesn’t deserve to be even more wrapped up in all our bullshit, but he will be anyways, and that pisses me off, I guess.”

“You’re a good brother, Dave,” John told him, reaching over and mussing his hair. “No matter how stupid you look trying to be one.”

“You’re an asshole,” The blonde chortled, pushing his dark-haired friend’s calloused hands away from his head.

Blue eyes crinkled up in laughter. “You love it.” A breeze rolled in and they both shuddered, so they took it to be a sign to go indoors. “Anyways, I don’t really know what to say, other than that we’ll just have to trust Jake with this stuff, and you have to keep an eye on Dirk. We’re obviously not going to be able to help him any more than he wants us to.”

He paused for a moment to close the door and grab a glass of water in the kitchen while John flopped on the couch, the thump of his hammer heavy against the wood. “I guess.” Dave’s phone buzzed in his pocket with a message:

talk to him!! :P

– jade

Dave rolled his eyes.

“Who’s that?” John inquired, and Dave replied whom, but he merely nodded and turned the television on. “What does she want?”

“…Nothing,” He deleted the message before throwing the phone around and watching the screen.

you can’t run from your problems forever, you know!

-jade