The data you are collecting is staggering. You’ve severely underestimated how much insight you can gain on your friends just by sharing the same air as them.
Jake is warm but his hands aren’t as prone to sweating as yours; the hair on his arms is thick and dark like the rest of him; dust flies from his shoulder as he smacks a tiny spider that landed there. His chest is broader than yours, and for good reason: you think his lungs must be enormous for all the words he can fit in one breath, all the volume his laughter climbs to. You could listen to his voice for hours.
You can listen to his voice for hours. It’s an incredible concept. You’re still not over it, and you don’t think you ever will be.
Slowly but surely you’ve begun to acclimatize yourself to being touched. You no longer jolt when Jake claps your shoulder, and you think that’s admirable for the amount of time you’ve spent together so far. It hasn’t been very long at all.
Your Auto Responder relays messages from Jane while you handle Roxy. Jake serves as an echo. “They’re about to land!” You tell him you know. “Gosh they’ve spotted the platform, this is so exciting Dirk!” You know. “I do believe we’re going to time it just right and arrive exactly when they do!” You know. You don’t even think about being annoyed at his repetition of information you’re getting at the exact same time. He’s excited and you’re excited. You’re both about to meet your only other friends in the entire world.
Trees start to thin and you can make out a fairly straightforward path to what you assume is your destination. Tiny rounded statues peek out from either side of the path, grow in number the farther you go. Broken stone and brick accumulate. You’re close. Jake is very near in front of you, and he turns back and grins.
You find yourself racing Jake to the apparent ruin he’s dubbed a landing platform. The ground pounds back at you with each footstep and you’re intrigued by it. It’s almost soft on the immediate surface, but you know full well exactly how thick the earth’s crust is. You’ve never actually touched earth before. You had only concrete and steel and water.
Earth is wonderful. It reminds you of Jake.
Red text pretends to mock you on the small viewscreen in your shades.
I hope you’re going to compile these notes in your Hello Kitty journal later. These are fucking fascinating little human revelations you’re having.
You jump cleanly over an upward curling tree root, and tell the Responder Give me a break, it’s not every day you meet your own kind for the first time in your life. I guess you wouldn’t know what that’s like, would you.
You smirk to yourself until it sends back I totally know what that’s like. I’ve been rolling in unfeeling robot company since the day you created me. I’m practically falling down all this cold inhuman camaraderie. You say Shut up robo-bro and close that window.
A low deep hum sounds from somewhere above, but you can’t see anything through the trees. It might be a perspective issue; you can’t correctly gauge the distance from where you are but judging from the general terrain of the island, and the direction you’re moving toward, you think it could be coming in from just past the frog ruins. So no, you wouldn’t be able to see anything from your path.
Either way, Roxy’s borrowed carapacian ship was closing in.
were comiiiiiin prepare your shit for flippipn sits at the bottom of your vision as you beat Jake by about a dozen feet. You skid to a stop on old worn stone, shift your ankles and turn to watch Jake catch up, panting.
You didn’t even flash-step. You suppress a smug grin. Jake is laughing breathlessly and you let the grin through. He stops to hold his knees and pant at the ground for a second, straightens back up and the sun catches a fine bead of sweat rolling down his temple. He opens his mouth to say something but he stops when he looks at you; his teeth click closed and an odd expression covers his face, but you don’t have enough information to try to guess what it is.
His eyes move past you though and his attention shifts again. You follow his gaze approximately twenty yards out, past crumbling pillars and a busted altar, to where Roxy and Jane are coming down the steps of the ship on the opposite end of the platform.
Your heart climbs into your throat as you realize they are going to want to hug you too.
You’re anxious but you think you’re ready.
Roxy screams in joy and jumps and runs toward you and Jake, while Jane moves a little slower, a little more gracefully, but you can see the wide smile on her face.
You like seeing their smiles a lot more than you thought you would.
Jake threads a hand through his hair and starts jogging meet them halfway and you follow. Roxy trips and stumbles over a deeply cracked brick, but Jane helps her recover. You’re all finally coming together.
Roxy bounces a little ahead of Jane, shouts, “Brace yourself Jakey I’m comin’ in for a landing!” She leaps at him, arms wide, and Jake just laughs and laughs as he catches her perfectly, arms tight around her ribs.
You turn to Jane and she’s already turning from Jake and Roxy to you, still smiling and flushed and god she’s glowing.
With a small high laugh Jane says, “Hello, Dirk!” Her voice reminds you a little bit of the whine your old drivers used to make when they were overloading. You liked that noise, but you like this one more. It’s more natural.
“Hey Jane.” You both stand there while Roxy and Jake are still giggling at each other beside you, until Jane bursts out laughing herself. This shit is really contagious, everybody is just laughing all the time and you don’t know if you should be too. You settle for a smirk.
“Oh, come here, you!” Jane opens her arms wide and moves closer and you think
I can do this
and you only hesitate a little when you slide your arms around her shoulders. She’s a lot smaller and softer than Jake was. The word you want to assign this contact is probably something like tender.
Pesterchum opens a new window at you again. Very good word choice. Your Responder needs to shut the hell up, you are collecting data.
I don’t want any distractions here, man. You ignore the Says the guy with several conscious waking forms and resume enjoying your fucking hug.
Now that you’ve had a chance to get used to the idea of touching people (person), actually doing it isn’t so difficult anymore. At least, not with people whom you’ve already known for years. Jane hums happily and you tighten your hold a little; not too tight, you’re not sure of yourself here yet.
She starts to rock a little, side to side, and the way her forehead is tucked just under your collarbone feels really nice. Her short hair tickles your neck. She doesn’t fit against you the same way Jake did. It’s entirely different; pressure and warmth seeps into different parts of you, there’s hardly anything but softness to her, and her scent is much—lighter. Sweeter. You aren’t all that sure how cakes and shit are supposed to smell, since you never really tried baking before, but you think that’s what you smell on her. Unsurprising. It’s good though.
She releases you much sooner than you and Jake did. You almost feel guilty about it, but you aren’t sure why. Your eyes flick over to him and you’re suddenly switching hugging partners, you guess, because a long drawn out, “Dirk” comes at you and you have to take a couple steps to compensate for Roxy nearly barreling into you.
Roxy practically vibrates with excitement. Her arms are steely around you. She hugs hard. But she’s giggling and asking you, “How’s it feel?” because she just knows exactly what you’re thinking sometimes.
You just tell her, “It’s amazing.” She squeezes you tighter one last time and you’re getting to be very good at quickly analyzing every touch and filing them away. Roxy fits her head right on your shoulder and one of her hands runs up and down your back in a gesture that feels comforting. You’re starting to learn how to fold yourself against them comfortably. Practice makes perfect.
And you’ve always got to be perfect. Why did you ever program this motherfucker.
You know, being an Auto Responder means someone has to contact you first.
It shuts up, back-sassing you silently.
You’d rip those smug shades right off your face if it weren’t for the bright sun. And if it weren’t for the fact that they were kind of attached to your brain, albeit mostly wirelessly. Despite the running commentary, the shades are still good for messaging and storing backup data you’ve written with thought.
It is also good at distracting you long enough for Jake to catch you completely unaware with a firm arm around your shoulder—and another one, Jane’s, around your back. She sings out, “Group hug!” and holy fuck, you didn’t even realize that was a thing. Roxy worms an arm out to hug Jane, but yours are trapped. You aren’t sure where to move them.
Jake reaches as far as he can around the three of you (he gets very far) and pulls you all against himself, laughing. “The finest collective embrace one could hope to be a part of!” He squeezes and you are helpless in the tangle of humans. Jake touches his temple to yours and sighs happily. Your breath stops a little short of his.
You close your eyes and absorb their breath, their heartbeats, their shifting around you, their happy conversation, and their laughter.
Feeling all of this at once is overwhelming. Feelings themselves are overwhelming.
You want to preserve all of these details to compare and contrast in depth later. You will, in fact, be compiling all of this in your ever-growing text document entitled “Hello Kitty Journal.” For now you simply tilt your head against Jake’s and hold Roxy a little tighter.
“Golly, Dirk, you sure have been quiet!” Jane smiles up at you, an extra tilt to one corner of her lips. You are brought back to the actual words your friends have been saying. “I expected you to be just as verbose as you are online! I haven’t even heard a single extended metaphor yet!”
Your fingers are actually itching to type out a reply. You have to use your voice instead. “Sorry. I just don’t use my voice all that much. Vocal cords are as dry as the ocean is wet when she’s horny.”
Roxy snorts loudly, cackles. You’ve always wanted to hear what her laugh was like when you said something hilarious and dirty.
A far cry sounds from the foliage. Jake snaps his head toward it. You all turn with him.
“By Jove that sounded like one of the white catbeasts. They aren’t usually out during the day.” He frowns and reluctantly slackens his hold, and lets you drift back apart. The loss of warmth, even in this humidity, is mildly disappointing. “We should get a move on unless we want to be accosted by a pack of enormous pale ruffians! And as sure as I am that we could certainly take them on as a group I still would rather recommend absconding.”
Jane is inclined to agree. Roxy looks ready to take monsters on but you’d rather get your bearings better first before any matter of strife here. Majority rules, Roxy captchalogues her ship, and you begin to retreat from the open ruins.
You suddenly wish the Brobot was still around. He would have been able to give you environmental readings long before now. He was your sentry and scout here, always sending new information along to you, updates and status reports on Jake and the island.
You kind of hope Jake misses him too, even a little.
The latticework of trees and vines provides cover as Jake leads you on a path known only to him. You move as silently as you can behind the three of them, watching and listening. You hear an odd buzzing; it gives you the impression of a multitude of small noises moving together. “It sounds like a group of flying insects is approaching from behind us, to the right.” Your voice is barely loud or clear enough to be heard. You’ll have to work on that.
Jake seems to understand what the buzzing means and he stops to wait for it to come closer. “That’ll be the fairy bulls!” The sound grows louder and tiny pinpricks of white start weaving between the trees at you.
Jane makes an incredulous face. “Fairy bulls?”
The first one flies straight between the four of you, not really all that swiftly. Jane ducks away from them and Roxy just kind of sways, seeming to conveniently avoid each one. (You know better.)
Jake grins at them. “Yes, this is a good sign for us! We were right to move along. These little fellas are always quick to flee the scene when something dangerous is afoot!” A comparatively large bull flies in a near straight path to Jake. You see it slow its wingbeats enough to sniff at Jake’s dark hair. It bumps a horn against his skull gently, fluttering in a vague circle around him before making an odd, tinny sort of moo and resuming its escape. Jake waves goodbye to it.
A light giggle puts your attention back on Roxy. Jake’s grin turns sheepish as she says, “He’s a fairy whisperer.” The way he scratches the back of his neck is, you think, very cute.
“I can hardly believe they were real after all,” Jane says quietly. “I feel quite foolish now!” She toes at a small rock.
“It’s all right Jane. You’re quick enough to admit your mistakes, and that’s damn admirable!” The smile Jake gives her is wide and rakish, and she nods with a smile of her own. “Well, that’s enough of that!” He gestures for you to follow. “We’ve still got a time limit here. Come!”
You set a quicker pace and watch Jane hold Roxy’s hand as they use each other for balance between roots and stone and deceptive patches of soft ground.
Everything is darker than you’re used to, and you realize you have no idea where the sun is anymore. You’ve always been able to inherently gauge what time it is at home because the sun and moon are nearly always there outside some window. (Not that you don’t have at least one form of clock in every room.)
Darkness just holds an entirely different meaning, here.
You kind of wish you could hold Jake’s hand again.
Instead you bring up the rear as Jake navigates his home terrain. You find yourself analyzing the way each one of your friends differs in the way they carry themselves. Jane moves with light feet, sometimes unsure but ultimately stepping in the right direction. Roxy swaggers and stumbles, but there is an underlying steadiness to her movement. Jake goes with confidence, shoulders back, bouncing with every step, even when he trips over his own feet every once in a while.
You slink along behind them, quiet and certain. You are a long shadow.
Jake takes you several thousand paces out, almost forgetting to ask if anyone needed a break now and again. Jane seemed quite grateful each time.
The terrain changes as you walk. You're so acutely accustomed to seeing the same shit wherever you went at home, and just having all this wild organic matter changing and moving with every step is fascinating. Jake experiences this every single day.
Trees thin out and vines start to cover the ground. "Oh! The pumpkins! The pumpkins!" Roxy seems to get her second wind and bounces between tangled vines to examine the budding pumpkins.
Jake laughs, "Yes! They'll be big and plump come autumn! That is if they aren't all picked off by monsters. But since this is basically the only vegetable I can rely on regularly I do a fair fine job protecting most of them before harvest."
There's a small, "Eep!" from Jane as she stumbles over a knot of vines, and you realize you can physically intervene and catch Jane before she falls. Her movement seems slow to you for an instant; hands begin to rise to break her fall, but you've already got her by the shoulders. You grip her carefully, pulling her back upright.
Roxy and Jake look surprised. So does Jane. "Thank you, Dirk. What a speedy catch!" The flush on her cheeks reads "slightly embarrassed" to you, so you let go and she dusts her skirt off.
"Fastest catcher in the west," you say. It's dopey but funny on several levels.
Roxy snorts, "Yep, you are all kinds of catcher," and winks at you. You smirk.
It feels good to be able to converse so easily with them already. It makes sense since you've known them for so long now, but without the filter of technology between you, everything has to flow naturally now.
You admit you were a little worried about how you would all interact in person. You may or may not have spent some time hyperventilating into Cal's torso about it right before departure.
"Sweet catch notwithstanding, here we are everyone!" Jake gestures widely ahead of you, to the huge sphere of his room, partially buried and stabilized in the ground.
"Now I know it probably seems a bit on the small side but I can assure you there is plenty of space in there! As well as basic amenities and suchlike." There's no door, only an entryway, and the hall inside looks slightly weather worn. He leads you all in and directs everyone to remove shoes. He uses a lot of unnecessary motion to pull his boots off and throw them in a tiny, shelved closet that also used to have a door. Roxy follows Jake's lead but you and Jane pull yours off much more calmly, and place them neatly next to the mess of other shoes.
Jake takes you through the end of the hall. Stairs curl up to another floor, and a door sits on the adjacent wall. "Through there is the bath room! Ah, I suppose some of you may fancy a wash at this point." Jane sort of nods, shoulders bouncing up to her ears briefly; Roxy shrugs too; you do nothing. "Well! There's plenty of stuff in there and luckily the hot water heater is nigh indestructible so it works like a dream even after all these years. Let me just show you my room first!"
You follow everyone up the stairs. Already you are finding you're more comfortable behind everyone. You can watch them easily that way.
You probably ought to quit observing at some point.
The four of you pass through a bare room with a broken transporter pad and two human-sized containers. One is open and empty. Brobot. You see Jake look at it briefly before leading you up a second curling set of stairs.
"Welcome to my home!"
Sunlight falls faintly through an open window, reflecting sharply between the white floor and ceiling. The room is quite a lot bigger than it seemed from the outside. Roxy gravitates immediately toward the messy pile of guns on one half of Jake's work table. The other half is full of scraps of machinery and his skull computer. You stand near the stair landing, hands in your pockets, and take it all in.
Movie posters cover roughly two thirds of the wallspace. Comic books sort of sit around on the floor at random. Dirty clothes form a pile by the foot of Jake's bed.
Jane pokes interestedly at a stack of DVDs, one of several throughout the room. Jake is attempting to excuse the mess but Jane is kindly waving him off, saying it's no trouble.
A couch sits next to a stacked pile of gutted uranium generators. Reckless. You hope Jake used proper protection when handling that shit. You notice a row of animal skulls lined up on a shelf just behind you, and you can't help being drawn to it. They're all right at eye level, and are really quite clean.
Jake snaps his fingers. "Oh! Gosh I almost forgot." He moves to a door beside you. Evidently it's a closet. He pulls a spare mattress out, catches it on the doorway.
You help him straighten it and pull it out properly. "Thanks!" You pick up the other end and let him lead it to an empty spot on the floor next to his bed. "Here's an extra sleeping space. I daresay if you and Jane don't mind sharing," Jake says to Roxy, who looks at Jane, "the two of you can take this! And Dirk I suppose I must ask you to take the couch unless you don't mind sharing my own bed, smallish as it is!"
You'd love to share his bed more than anything. "Yeah that's fine. I'll take the couch."
"Very good! Well I suppose the rather short tour is over unless you have any questions. Like I mentioned before, if you wish to shower now is your chance!"
While Jake retrieves spare sheets and blankets and pillows, you let Roxy and Jane decide who goes first. They play rock-paper-scissors over it and Jane wins. As she descends the stairs Roxy flops down onto the mattress.
"We should watch a movie, movie guy!"
Roxy has hardly seen any movies, compared to the rest of you. Jake looks like he's been given a naked blue lady in a big blue cake. "That is a capital fucking idea! Oh man, what should we start with?"
He looks far too excited. You rasp out, "Why don't we start with something that's not complete garbage."
Jake's smile doesn't flicker in the slightest. "Good idea! How about Weekend and Bernie's first!" Roxy laughs at you, one long drawn out note. She agrees instantly.
Soon the three of you are settled on the couch, Jake between you and Roxy. His husktop is propped on the stack of generators. One of the topmost ones appears to still have its battery, and Jake's plugged his computer into it.
You sigh through the first few scenes, while Jake and Roxy both laugh through it. Jake has a hard time not mentioning things he'd seen in the bloopers and deleted scenes, but Roxy doesn't seem to mind and you don't seem to care. It is a pretty terrible movie, but at times it's almost close to funny. You think your brother would probably appreciate it.
Jane returns with slightly damp, flatter hair. Jake scoots right over, closer into you, and pats the empty space he makes. "Come join us! We're only about twenty minutes in."
"Alright!" She settles in quickly and smoothly. "Oh, Roxy, aren't you going to shower now?"
Roxy laughs, "Are you kidding? I ain't gonna miss a second of this gold." Her grin is sarcastic but you think she is genuinely enjoying herself anyway.
"Roxy I'm so glad you are getting into it. Unlike some of us!" He elbows you gently and you jump. You fold your arms to cover it up, and side-eye him.
The movie goes on and on and reluctantly you get mildly invested in it. You stop thinking about Jake's thigh touching yours, stop listening to his breathing between running commentaries, stop watching him through your peripherals.
By the end of it, the sun has set behind the tall trees. Jake gets up and draws a green curtain over the open window, then turns on the light mounted in the ceiling.
"Gosh I suppose it is a little bit after dinner time. Is anybody hungry? I've got some fresh stuff preserved downstairs and a cookalizer at the ready." Everyone at least agrees that it's break time. Roxy stretches and announces that she's going down for a shower.
"And don't nobody peep okay." She sticks her tongue out at you all. Jake and Jane laugh along.
Jake gets an affirmative answer to the hunger question from Jane, and he turns to you. "How are you feeling Strider? You ravenous yet?"
In a way, yes. You are. It's a low rumble as it's always been, but in person it's getting difficult to hold down.
"I could use a bite or two."
"Great! I'm afraid most of my stock is just canned goods and beastie meat so it's nothing fancy, but it tastes fine just the same!" He heads down to the floor below and Jane and you follow.
Jake opens the container opposite the empty Brobot one, and shows you the various cuts of meat he's been storing. The interior is refrigerated, and you take note of a few bottles and fresh fruit in there. Figs and a few other tropical fruits sit in clear plastic containers. You almost envy the availability of these food groups he has.
You all come back up and Jake pulls some cans of food out of his sylladex. "Always keep these babies on me, just in case I get stranded!" He sets to cooking the meat and says, "If you'd like to see another film you can take your pick from the piles I've got!"
With a chipper, "Okay!" Jane starts browsing, and you just sort of lean against the worktable while Jake busies himself.
You're impressed at how easily he seems to have stepped into the hosting role. You sincerely doubt you would have done half as good a job, physical possibility of even being able have them come visit you at all notwithstanding.
You're glad you all came together here, in the wild, with Jake. It's like a strange reprieve from all your other lives.
If you close your eyes you can pretend the world isn't about to break.
You and Roxy decided to do this together. You'd collaborated for nearly a year modifying both your available technology. You replicated her devices and she yours. You augmented and amalgamated. You had precisely enough energy for two trips; one there and one back. She went to Jane, and you went to Jake. She had access to a tiny ship so she took it with her to travel in style to the island with Jane; you just sent yourself.
The people of Derse are starting to get riled up. You block the window of your tower again before they notice you.
In a few days you’ll go back, and you’ll begin the end of the world.
"I must say Dirk it's a whole bloody lot more difficult getting a read on you in person! What's going through that well-styled noggin of yours?" Jake's lopsided smile shakes you back into the present. The past.
The smell of dinner permeates the room. Jane compliments it.
Roxy returns just in time and you all sit in a circle on the floor and eat and talk together.
Night looms and you all make a wardrobe change. Now it is a goddamn pajama party. You duck out while the others prepare another movie.
You take a shower in Jake’s space. The scent of residual dirt and soap and sweat permeates the room. Steam slicks the tiles and painted-over concrete. You’re so tempted to masturbate in here; you’re half hard but slicking your cock with soap already. Jake’s soap.
You’ve fantasized about doing this for nearly three years.
But you can’t do it.
You finish washing and turn the shower off. You stand naked in Jake’s bathroom, towel-drying your hair.
You put your shades back on, adhere the tiny electrode to your temple. The Auto Responder has come crawling back. I know what you were thinking. I’m surprised you chickened out.
Of course it does. Fuck off.
Come on it says, you’ve got no problem touching your own self. Are you even going to hit that while you’re here?
The typing is slow because you’re slow to think of the answer. I don’t actually know if I can do it.
The Responder leaves you alone. You check Derse quickly. You slip your pajamas back on and return to your friends.
Jake notices you first, turning from the left half of the couch. His eyes flick up to your slightly-less-than-styled hair quickly but he’s not fast enough for you to miss it. “You’re back! We were waiting for you, chum.” You pretend there’s a light flush to his cheeks, that he thinks you look good with your hair this way.
He scoots over for you and you take a seat between him and the arm of the couch. You fantasize about leaning your head on his shoulder while you stare dully at Star Wars: A New Hope.
Everyone is actually fairly quiet during the movie. You think it’s travel-tiredness on Jane and Roxy’s part.
Jake leans over about forty minutes in. He whispers gently to you, “You’re okay, right?” and it almost takes you by surprise.
You whisper back and it feels like a normal speaking tone to you. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Jake catches your eye at an angle, because you’re not exactly facing him. He’s not exactly facing you either. “Well I suppose I just meant uh. If you were coping well with being around people like this? I mean I know we’re your friends but you were downright skittish at first so I was a little worried I guess.”
The soft hissing tones in his voice momentarily hypnotize you. You really have been slightly overloaded since this day began.
But how do you tell him that ever since you first touched his hand all you want from him is more?
It’s unfair to want to hoard him for yourself.
“No, it’s cool. I’m… adapting.”
Jake tilts his head a little more toward you. “Okay. Just let me know if you start feeling overwhelmed or somesuch.” He briefly touches your knee and you nearly have a heart attack.
Jake turns back to the antique future space battles.
Eventually people start nodding off, and before long you lean over a bit to see where everybody’s at. Roxy has her head pillowed on Jane’s lap; Jane is leaning quite gingerly against Jake, head barely making it to the top of his bicep. Her eyes are closed. Jake looks a little drowsy but otherwise remains upright.
The credits begin with much fanfare and Jake blinks several times to wake himself back up. “Golly is it already over?”
“Seems that way.”
Jake looks down at the girls. “Suppose it might be time for lights out.” He reaches out to gently shake Jane awake, and she groans sleepily. She comes back to herself and blushes, apologizing for nodding off. “Don’t worry about it dear Jane! It has been a bit of a big day. Which is why we should all start hunkering down for the night!”
Jane wakes Roxy, or tries to. She gets Roxy into a suggestive zombie-like state where she can direct her slowly to the mattress.
Jake shuts down his husktop, stretches and yawns widely. “You’re sure you’re good with the couch old chap?”
He’s offering a chance to share his bed with you again, you should take it, you should take it right now.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
You won’t really ever be sleeping, anyway.
“Alright then bro fair enough.” He gets up and the couch feels cold. He pulls another blanket from his closet. He no doubt bundles up in all of these during the winter. He hands it to you. “Here you go! I’ll be turning the light off in a bit so get ready for sleep, my friends.”
There’s minor shuffling as Jane and Roxy head off to brush their teeth. Jake reclines on his bed, one leg up, and you try so, so hard not to look up his loose boxers. You fucking fail spectacularly. Jake sighs noisily; contentedly, you think.
“This is probably the best day of my whole life at this point.”
You want to kiss him so badly.
The girls return fresh-mouthed, and Jake absconds briefly for his own nightly routine. He comes back and bids everyone goodnight and you can hear the affection in his voice as he shuts the light off.
The night is balmy and oddly familiar.
You listen to humans breathing and fabric shifting, and monsters calling softly in the distance.
An hour or two passes. Darkness grows deep. You’re two-thirds finished compiling all of your findings today inside the faint glow of your glasses. Dissonant rustling disturbs you for a moment and you nearly forget where you are; Jake sighs heavily and you relax again.
You complete your work. You talk to your Auto Responder for a while.
Eventually you lose concentration, and you reluctantly remove your shades. You pinch the bridge of your nose.
Restlessness settles around you and you can’t lie still like you do at home. Vaguely you surmise that it could be simply because the noises you hear aren’t the ones you’re used to. No machines whirring at all. Every sound is from an organism.
You roll off the couch, fix your sleep pants. The darkness is thick but you manage to pick your way to the stairs and descend carefully. It’s warm and breezy outside and, in a moment of adventurousness, you don’t put on shoes.
You want to feel dirt and grass and vines and rocks on your feet.
You stay out for a while, no timepieces on you to track your progress. The moon peeks from behind black trees. It’s beautiful here. Beautiful and incredibly alive.
Tangible dangers live here. You’d actually be slightly thrilled to live in a place like this. Instead of having little choice but to hole yourself up in a tower day after day, you would be spending your time exploring and surviving.
You understand Jake’s desire for adventure a lot more than you’ve ever let on.
The sound of your sigh is lost in the din of the jungle.
“Couldn’t sleep, Strider?”
Jake’s glasses glint in the moonlight and you momentarily lament the lack of your own. It’s too late to hide.
It’s so dark but he’s still blinding.
“Guess not.” You watch him swallow on nothing.
“Things on your mind, then?”
Why does his voice sound off? You don’t have much to go on but it seems stilted all the same. Maybe it’s just because he’s trying to keep quiet on the off chance some predator is lurking nearby.
“What are you doing up.” That didn’t even sound like a question. You have practically zero inflection.
Jake huffs a small laugh. “I got up to take a leak and I noticed you were absent from your post. I suppose I wanted to make sure you hadn’t buggered off too far. Unwise at this time of night.”
He’s a very good friend. He shows nothing but genuine concern for you.
“I can handle your death island, Jake.”
You don’t show enough genuine concern for him in return. You distance yourself too easily.
“Of course you can! Er, I didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t. I do hope you know what I mean.” His hand touches your bare shoulder; you control your expression but you can’t control the heat in your face. “I care about your wellbeing Dirk. You’re all here with me and I don’t want anything to happen to jeopardize that you know?”
Heart rate has increased dramatically. Fists are clenched. You turn to face him and you look straight in his eyes.
Jake looks bewildered until your face is about an inch or two away. Then he just looks a little frightened.
You push your lips against his softly.
You don’t know how to do this. Neither does he.
He shies back a breath away and you open your eyes. He licks his lips, leaves them slightly parted. He looks unsure. His hand has slipped off your shoulder. You’re prepared to have it all come crashing down.
But Jake kisses you back, and the relief is visceral and you whine softly in your throat as you press closer. Both his hands touch your shoulders, fleeting at first but then his arms come around you and you just
The sound your lips make as they come apart is small and wet and it just makes you push back for more. Your hands move to clutch around his back, fisting in his thin shirt. Soft vocalizations escape between each kiss. Only half of them are from you.
You feel as though you’re about to catch fire. Your heart has never raced like this, nor have your fingers ever trembled. Every inch of you has an electric edge. Your chest thunders against his. He tilts his face and kisses harder.
You lose yourself.
Jake breathes sharply and pulls back. His mouth looks red even in washed out moonlight. He’s panting and he looks scared. You catch your breath but your heart doesn’t stop.
“Jake,” you whisper. He licks his lips once more and you feel light-headed.
“D-Dirk I. Oh, gosh.”
You will actually cry if he says he doesn’t feel that way about you.
“I didn’t quite expect you t-to,” he sounds so breathless and you’re losing composure, “be so forward.”
After all the shying away and backing off you’ve done today, you didn’t really expect it either.
“Is that bad.” He hasn’t taken his hands off you yet. You haven’t taken yours off him.
“I don’t rightly know, to be honest.” Your fingers unclench and release his shirt, but you can’t help but flatten them against his back instead. He’s warmer than anything you’ve ever touched.
Jake smoothes his hands across your skin: trapezius to deltoids to biceps. It makes you shiver even though you’re anything but cold. Your breath is shallow and silent.
“I can…” the words don’t want to come out but you need them to. “I can wait.” The reality is you can’t.
The swell of Jake’s chest as he sighs is gorgeous and painful. You let him go. He lets you go.
You don’t know if you should meet his eyes.
His thumb brushes across your jaw softer than a ghost.
“I really appreciate it. Sorry bro I’m just not sure of anything at this particular point.” You don’t want to ever have to hear him sound so timid and uncertain again. Your heart aches more than it ever did when you were thousands of miles and hundreds of years away from him.
Being close hurts so fucking much.
He takes a step back and the air feels frigid for an instant. “Well um. Don’t stay out too long I guess. Prowlers are loose.” He gulps and you reluctantly look at his face. “Goodnight Dirk.”
Your face feels stiff but you manage to reply. “Night.”
He goes back inside.
Cicadas buzz noisily, at war with cricket song.
You look out again at this tragic murderous paradise. You wait several minutes to return to the relative safety of Jake’s room.
It hurts right now but
you still have a trace of hope.
You lie down and try not to think for the next handful of hours before the sun rises. You go to Derse.
The whole next day you are only a half-participant. Ultimately you’re not sure anyone realizes it. Your mind still thrums with regret and uncertainty and apprehension. You can hardly stand to be alone with Jake for any amount of time; luckily that is an easy avoidance with both Jane and Roxy keeping you going.
The four of you take a long nap on a grassy hill in the afternoon. You’re a four-pointed star with Jake and Jane’s heads on either side of yours. You breathe in unison and you finally feel like you can start shaking off and pushing down your troubles.
You go back to letting your friends teach you how to live.
Fifty-six hours remain.
It’s oddly relaxing to not be in control of time management; Jake and Roxy end up calling most of the shots, while Jane and you follow along.
You’re together nearly all hours of the day. You still stop and revel in this.
In the morning (forty hours remain) Jake proposes hiking to a lake near the center of the island. He makes a good case but Jane admits to feeling “just a teeny bit exhausted from all the running around we’ve done already” and you don’t blame her.
You stay behind to keep her company, as well as watch out for her in case something dangerous comes along. Jake takes Roxy out for a mini adventure.
“I feel bad skipping out. I’m sure it’s a beautiful lake.” Jane sighs as early light shivers through the window at a sharp angle. “I’m just not quite as in shape as I thought I was, unfortunately.”
You’re both on the couch with your feet between you. Her blue shorts are extremely precious and you think of Jake.
“That’s okay. Nothing wrong with wanting to stay in.” You know this first hand. She realizes it too. She starts to apologize but you wave her off.
You’re simply glad to finally be straight with her. You and Roxy both. She’s come a long way with her suspension of disbelief. You’re proud of her.
There’s a hush while you listen to the world and Jane fidgets.
“So you,” she starts, and there’s a long moment before she continues, “still like Jake. Right?”
What an opportune moment to have the worst conversation ever.
“Yeah.” She can’t find your eyes behind your shades. “Do you?”
“I think so.” Silence hurts all of a sudden. It used to be your best friend. “But you know that I don’t want it to ruin our friendship!”
Jane nervously twirls a finger in her hair.
“Jane let’s be honest here.” Her eyes snap to you. “You have a phenomenally better chance with him than I do.”
But the truth is
you’ve weighed this statistically
and Jake is far more likely to choose someone he can relate more closely to
someone who is just as abnormal as he is
someone who lacks as much as he does
someone who understands what it is to be all alone.
You’re being as purely objective as you possibly can and you know in your heart that he completes you.
But the fact remains that you will leave again. You will be going back to that lonely fucking speck trapped in all that fucking blue, and Jane will remain far closer.
They’ll have a chance to see each other again.
You and Jake won’t.
Jane can give him a chance at normalcy.
Even with impending doom, you want Jake to be happy.
He will be happy with her.
“Oh, Dirk…” she sounds sad. You hate it. “Dirk please don’t short-sell yourself like that.” She shifts and takes your hand. The warmth will always surprise you. “I don’t want this to be some kind of competition between us. I care about you so very much, and I’d be ashamed to push that aside just for some… some old fluttery feelings.” She squeezes your fingers gently.
“Miss Crocker,” you touch your other hand to hers, “I treasure your friendship.”
You feel disingenuous.
She smiles, “Me too,” and lets it drop.
You spend the next few hours playing co-op games on your antique (completely current and up-to-date) handhelds.
Clatters and voices echo up from downstairs, announcing your friends’ return. They laugh and shriek all the way up. Roxy comes up first, already dark skin vaguely sun-flushed and grinning ear to ear. Jake bears the same expression, but also happens to be completely wet. “Roxy punked me and I took a tumble into the water, and then a seahorse showed up and we shot it in the face!”
Roxy recounts the details between laughs while Jake peels off his damp white shirt. Jane has the decency to pretend to continue listening but you have no such grace.
Water drips down Jake’s spine as he goes to the closet. He’s tanned dark all over. His ass is gorgeous.
Roxy is a fucking bastard.
“I’m gonna go rinse off this grimy lake water! Be back in a second.” He leaves with a fresh set of clothes.
The rest of the day is spent eating and hanging out. You and Roxy get a laugh out of legitimately Pestering each other from three feet away. She takes your glasses and talks to the Auto Responder “in person” for the rest of the afternoon. You feel rather naked without them but it doesn’t matter all that much. Jane admires your eyes.
A slow day ends. Jake checks the weather forecast while the sun sets, and announces that tomorrow will bring rain. You spend a few hours late that night stargazing.
Roxy initiates a jam session and you all talk together. You talk about things no one says or thinks during the day, and it’s liberating to speak in the night where no one can see you clearly. Errant clouds block the moon for moments at a time. Jake asks about feelings.
Roxy goes first and puts her cards on the table immediately. “I’d smooch each and every one of you right on the mouth. Lots of times, at like the drop of a hat.” She laughs lightly. “I know I sound like I’m joking but I am one hundred percent serious face.”
You suddenly imagine Roxy kissing a soaking wet Jake while a giant dead seahorse lay before them.
“You’re all just really cute and precious and I love all of you. Who’s next?”
Jane pipes up. “Well I… golly, how do we follow that up?” She gives a small nervous giggle. “Well, I care so much about you all, you know that. Even if sometimes I am a little stubborn about things, and give you hard times.”
She pauses for a moment and continues, “I’ve had a crush on you for a long time, Jake.” Your heart seizes. “I’d already resigned to give it up, though, until we all came together here. I’m… I’m not exactly sure if I still feel the same as I did, to be honest. Being with all of you like this has made me realize how much more I enjoy just having you all as my friends. So… so those sure were some things I’ve just said!”
Roxy tells her, “Good girl Jane,” and you know she’s holding her hand.
“Am I next then?” Jake asks, and they tell him to go ahead. “Well at the risk of sounding a little vain I suppose I must say it’s quite a relief to know your feelings Jane!” He laughs and Jane laughs nervously in return. “I was beginning to think I was projecting a bit I guess. But really I rather feel the same way as Roxy! I love all of you and, well damn it all I’d smooch everyone on the face too.”
A beat of silence follows and Roxy says, “Dirk?”
And that’s all you say, because you are a selfish, traitorous asshole.
“That’s okay, Dirk. We know you love us too.” Jane manages to say it without sounding condescending. Roxy pokes fun and lightens the mood for you. Jake is oddly quieter than usual.
Soon the clouds begin to roll in and you all reluctantly make the fairly short trek back to shelter. Jake insists everyone hold hands in a line as you pass through the pitch black shadow of the trees. You happen to be behind him. He takes your hand and you’re content to just barely hold it. Roxy has your other hand, and Jane has hers.
After a minute Jake laces his fingers between yours.
Your control is once again ruined.
You squeeze back.
He keeps your hand even when you get through the deep shadow and come back out under the clouds. Roxy lets you go and takes Jane ahead of you, swinging their own hands broadly while Jane talks about all the times her father made her hold his hand wherever they went when she was a child.
You feel significantly bereft. The feeling is pushed down. You never want to envy Jane for getting the closest to having a normal life. You rationalize that it is balanced out by her auspicious lineage and subsequent danger because of it.
It still doesn’t stop you from wishing you had a family.
But Jake still holds your hand.
You do have a fucking family. You’re all right here together.
You get back inside and you all run around brushing teeth and taking showers and changing into pajamas. It’s the wee hours of the morning by the time everyone goes to sleep.
Everyone but you.
When you’re certain everyone is deep in slumber, while you still feel the ghost of Jake’s hand tingling on yours, you rub that palm softly over your clothed dick. You rock into your hand, and pretend it belongs to someone else.
Your touch stays gentle, barely there. You do this for an hour.
Morning comes eventually and Jake puts out rain catchers. You spend your last day indoors watching movies while rain pours heavily outside.
Roxy and Jane end up reading Jake’s comics, and they get so into laughing at them they don’t notice Jake go downstairs.
They don’t notice you following him shortly thereafter.
You see him standing near the doorway, rain coming down in thick sheets just outside, nearly flooding half the gently-sloping concrete floor.
“Jake.” He turns his head toward you.
The puddle of rainwater is cold on your bare feet.
“Strider sometimes I feel so sad for you.”
Your jaw drops.
“I feel terrible because you’re so alone, more alone than I ever was, and you keep yourself there and doggone it it frustrates me to see you so close but so far.”
“I mean gosh don’t take it as pity because I know that sucks, and I’d never try to paint you as some sad young damsel locked in a castle.” He’s facing you fully now and he’s spackled with rain.
Eventually you find your voice. “Jake what are you getting at, exactly?”
He looks down. “I….” His eyebrows pull together; he looks back up at you. “Come with me for a moment.”
You let your confusion go. “Okay.” You send Roxy a message letting her know you’re going outside with Jake for a short while.
He steps out into the rain and you follow.
The downpour soaks you both almost instantly. You don’t go very far, just past the long spread of pumpkin vines, just under the first few trees. Everything is vividly green and fragrant. The rain feels different here. You ignore weather completely when you see Jake’s troubled face.
“Dirk I’m afraid last night I wasn’t entirely forthcoming in my statement of affections,” he starts in a rush. You don’t know what to expect. “While what I’d said remains true and no doubt will until my dying breath, I do have… some additional feelings I’d like to clear up with you before I do anything else.”
The world slows down and you’re scared to death of what’s coming.
“How do you feel about Roxy and Jane?”
“I…” he’s throwing a whole deck of wild cards at you. You answer to the best of your ability.
Jake smiles. You guess you passed. He takes off his rain-speckled glasses and tucks them into his pocket.
“And,” his smile lessens, “do you feel the same about me?”
You shut down.
The rain destroys the silence, roars between you.
Jake should damn well fucking know how you feel about him after your first fuck-up. He wants you to say it.
Your pulse has no rhythm but blind speed.
His eyes are so fucking green and intense and beautiful.
“I’m in love with you.”
He’s cold and wet and his lips are your lifeline. Jake holds you around the waist and you clutch at his shoulders as tight as you can, wet fabric slipping under your grip. He pushes you back against a tree, kissing you so hard you can barely gasp for air.
You compulsively lick your lips and end up licking his.
Jake gives a sharp, “Oh,” and you do it again. He licks back.
Jesus H. Dick.
You have no fucking clue what you’re doing, honestly, but neither does he so you’re even.
The rain softens momentarily, or the leaves are blocking most of it, you’re not sure and you don’t fucking care. Jake’s hands burn your skin as they slip under your shirt. You shame yourself by gasping loudly.
“Sorry! Fuck, I’m sorry.” Jake withdraws his hands but they rest on your hips and that’s even less innocent. Your hands clutch near his collar. You’re trembling from the cool damp air.
“It’s,” you gulp and try not to sound pathetic, “it’s okay, I just. It’s kind of.”
Jake breathes, “Intense.”
“Yeah.” You’re both dripping wet and you look ridiculous. You have never felt so aroused in your whole short life. You let him take your shades off.
He leans against you, nuzzling your temple. His hands slide up your hips, fingers tracing back up one at a time to touch your skin. He’s starved, and so are you. He’s panting softly in your ear and it sends shivers down your spine with each breath. Your hand threads up in his sodden hair, water slipping between your fingers.
He pushes your shirt up slowly, thumbs tracing over your ribs and hands circling around to follow your spine. He’s just touching your fucking torso but you’re already achingly hard. Your fingers grip his hair and his shirt tightly and when he tentatively reaches his fingers up to brush over your nipples you actually cry out.
“T-tell me if it’s too much.” The vibration of his voice, husky against your ear, is already too much on its own.
You overtake control of your hands and start to return the favor to Jake. His shirt is basically translucent but for the skull on his chest, muscle already made obvious to you. You can’t tear your eyes off him.
You try not to let your hands shake as you press one palm flat against his warm wet skin. It’s easy to imagine you can feel his blood pumping through your hand. His breath stutters, he whispers, “Criminy,” when you memorize each pull of muscle over his abdomen.
He gravitates toward you. He kisses along your face, and when he hits the corner of your lips you turn and engage him. He pants into your mouth and you lick at his teeth.
He pushes his hips against yours.
“F-fuck!” Your blunt nails dig into his hips. There are so fucking many first touches happening here you don’t know what to do with yourself.
Jake asks, “Is this all right?” and you breathe a weak affirmative as you push your erection helplessly up to his.
You can’t stop.
You don’t want to. Your brain is a fucking mess. The relative cold of the environment doesn’t even register anymore. You are on fire.
“Dirk this is, oh lord,” he says, and you say you know and you moan against your will, against his lips.
Jake thumbs over your nipple again and your hips jerk in response.
You clutch his hips, eventually draw them over worn wet denim to palm his ass and pull him closer.
He bites your bottom lip on accident. You groan.
It’s too much it’s all too much
your voice is embarrassingly high and shallow, you can’t breathe
Jake moans your name and you reach around to cup his balls and feel his cock through his shorts, and just knowing the shape of it makes you come.
Your hand squeezes on its own. Jake lets out a sound that’s primal as he ruts against you. He pants against your neck and smothers you with his own body and you feel his cock twitch against your palm and it’s fucking perfect.
His breath is loud and his voice is barely there when he comes, and you don’t fucking care about the mess you’ve made. You’re both already soaked to the bone anyway.
Jake leans his face against your cheek; you tip your head up and raindrops hit your face. The tree digs into your back.
You catch your breath.
The rain slows.
“God almighty…” Jake says at great length. “I didn’t quite mean to… take it that far….”
You make a weak noise in your throat. “No, please don’t tell me you regret that.” You’re not crying; it’s just raining on your face.
Jake’s voice is firm. “No, no, never.” He’s still wet and cold but the way he holds you tight warms your heart. “I was just p-planning to take it slower. I’m still,” he shifts his hips and you thread your arms around his waist, “I’m still incredibly pleased with the results. Golly. I’m not a virgin anymore.”
You laugh out loud.
He fusses at you, “What? What did I say? It’s true!” and you can’t really bring your voice back under control. You subside into raspy half-giggles.
“Jake, you’re just. Fucking precious.”
“I love you, Dirk.”
He pulls back, cheek sliding past yours, and you look at each other’s bare faces. Your fingers trace his freckled cheekbones, jaw line, down his neck. His hands are on your hips. You feel like they belong there.
You take his face in your hands and kiss him chastely.
You’re going to miss him so god damn much.
He gives you back your shades and puts his own glasses back on. You guess it’s over. It feels cold, but logically you know it’s merely fifty to sixty degrees out here.
The rain increases. Your frigid bare feet slap and squelch in the wet leaves and grass and dirt as you run back inside, hand in hand. You’re fairly filthy but you don’t give a shit.
You pant lightly in the hallway, murmur to each other. Jake takes off his shirt and wrings it out over existing puddles. He pulls towels from the shelf in the shoe closet and tells you to shower first. He smiles, and kisses you one last time.
You watch Jake’s ascent up the stairs until his feet disappear.
The water is hot. You rinse off.
Roxy’s left a message in your glasses. soooo did you smooch ;)
You smirk and tell her Yes.
cool me 2
Your smirk widens. She came all this way and she would be damned if she didn’t get a smooch out of everyone.
Procuring spare clothes out of your sylladex, you dry off and change. Jake comes down as you go up and he’s still damp as hell. His hair is tousle-dried and sticks out wildly. He grins at you, like he’s cautiously excited. You blow him a kiss.
You eat and you sit together and try to enjoy your last hours. Roxy and you will be leaving at midnight.
Your only regret is that you won’t be able to sleep in his bed.
The rain eventually lets up but the clouds remain. Light drizzle keeps the island quiet. It really is gorgeous here.
Three hours before departure Roxy takes Jane home. She’s smiling and in tears and you care for her deeply. She gets a long embrace and a sweet kiss from Jake. You’re not jealous. You hold her tightly and kiss her hair.
Roxy takes her by the hand and tells you she’ll be right back. You estimate she will return in just over two hours. You’ll miss Jane a lot.
The thrum of engine is deafening for an instant, but then it gradually leaves you in silence.
You go back inside.
Jake sits on the edge of his bed and you stand in front of him. You’re alone together and you could do anything now.
He takes your hands and pulls you to him. You stand between his legs and he lets your hands go to hug your waist and press his face into your shirt.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
You pet his hair.
You’re a long, long way from flinching at his touch, now.
“Stay here with me, please Dirk.” You swallow heavily. He clings to you.
“Fucking balderdash!” His tone is muffled but it pierces your heart.
“I want to stay, Jake, fucking believe me—“ your voice cuts out. You try again. “I have to go back.” Jake sniffs loudly and you hurt so much. Please don’t let him be crying. “There are things there that have to be done.”
“I-I know.” Jake sounds so small. You’re both heartbroken. Fingers thread through his hair gently. You love him so fucking much.
“But I promise you this Jake.”
You move back. His arms fall from your waist. You get down on one knee, take off your shades, and look directly into his red-rimmed eyes.
You hold his face in your hands.
“We will see each other again.” Thumb strokes his cheek, bumps his glasses. “I swear it to you on my fucking life.”
He tears off his glasses. You lean up and kiss him like it’s your last. He whines softly against you and pushes his tongue in your mouth.
His hands clutch at you and you have to get up, you have to let him pull you onto his bed. You never break from his lips. You straddle his waist.
But instead of being full of heat and passion, you’re just desperate and sad. Your chest hurts and it’s hard to breathe.
Eventually you realize you are, in fact, crying.
Jake is looking at you with similar tear stains on his face. Your breath spasms. You realize it’s a sob.
He pulls you down and holds you tightly. You hold him back. He shifts and turns so you’re on your sides.
You stay like that until Roxy comes back.
The island is dead quiet. Nothing makes a sound as the three of you stand in Jake’s room.
“Goodbye sucks,” Roxy says. You couldn’t agree more.
You turn the dial on your augmented, streamlined sender-appearifier. Roxy fiddles with hers, petulantly.
“We’ve still got Pesterchum.” Jake doesn’t sound too reassuring.
Despite the delicate machinery in her hands Roxy whines loudly and throws her arms around Jake, crying out how much she’ll miss him. At length they separate, Jake kisses her wet cheek, and Roxy turns to you.
You set your device down on Jake’s table before opening your arms. You hold her tight and she touches your ass. She whines morosely how the others’ were so much softer.
You kiss her forehead.
You’re afraid you’ll never get to show any of them this much affection ever again.
“I’ll miss you, Rox.”
“I know, me too.”
It’s forty seconds until midnight.
You pick your device back up and check it over one last time. You look at Jake.
Neither of you say anything.
The sender-appearifiers are live.
You feel the pull and tell Jake, “I love—“
you’re back in the middle of your apartment
it’s too late.
The ocean echoes quietly.
You’re alone again.
Weeks in the future, but not many, a planet crumbles. Miles stretch and destroy.
Your hope is alive.