There’s a jangle of noise you haven’t heard outside of television for years, the sound of keys clinking together clumsily and hitting the metal of the lock with force. Dave’s the only one with keys, but he doesn’t make noise like this. You hover awkwardly at the doorway of the lounge for a moment before you remember. He’s bringing a friend home. He’s giving you warning. You’re up in the crawl space before he finishes his production with the door and opens it.
‘Why do you have so many keys?’ an unfamiliar voice asks. Great fucking question, strange boy. Where did he even get them?
‘It’s ironic,’ Dave says, and you smirk at the way he’s using that as an excuse, same way as you do, just labeling everything you don’t want to explain as irony. ‘Every single one of them opens that one door, except this one.’ You peek out the tiny hole you installed in the manhole (for scoping out Dave’s position before you scare the shit out of him by jumping down) and see him holding an ornate key that looks like it would open a mausoleum or something equally macabre.
‘What does that one open?’ the boy breathes.
Dave makes an exaggerated show of looking around and leans in as if it’s a secret. Which is ridiculous because he usually doesn’t have any kind of tells and is always aware of his surroundings, but also because he didn’t glance your way and your hearing is more than capable of hearing a whisper. The boy leans in too, eyes comically wide behind dorky square glasses.
‘I HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA,’ he yells in the boys ear.
You flashstep to a deep corner of the crawl space so they don’t hear you snigger. Good one, Dave. You fucking love that kid.
The boy is shouting and Dave is laughing and you wish you could make him laugh more. You sometimes wish you hadn’t trained him so well. But no, he needs to be able to keep a straight face when he’s asked about you. Better that you’re both alive and a bit emotionally stunted than the alternative. And, from the sounds of it, he is still capable of laughing. Maybe you haven’t fucked up too bad.
You move back to the manhole. The boy is now looking curiously around the room. Dave is leaning against a wall watching him.
‘What are we going to do?’ the boy asks, peering at your mixing gear with his hands behind his back. You don’t know if Dave gave him the “no touching” talk or if the kid’s just polite, but you appreciate it. The idiots at the club are never that respectful of your gear.
‘I dunno, John, this was your idea,’ Dave says.
John sticks his tongue out at Dave.
‘No one has been to your house, I wanted to make sure you actually had one,’ he says.
‘Dude, no one could achieve this level of hotness living in a cardboard box,’ Dave says. ‘I grant you that I don’t know how to work an iron, but I do shower and change clothes daily.’
‘Yeah, yeah …’ John says. ‘How do you even walk down the street with all those bitches just throwing themselves at your feet?’
‘It’s a struggle, Johnny-boy. I asked Bro to make me a snow plow attachment for my kicks, but he said that it’s all part of the Strider charm, no getting around it. Just got to learn how to deal with it now, or it’ll just be that much harder when I get to his level.’
‘Where is your elusive bro?’ John asks.
‘Around,’ Dave says casually.
‘Come on, that has to be part of the experience! You’ve met my dad and my weird neighbours and my piano teacher, I gotta meet your bro!’
‘He’ll show when he feels like it,’ Dave says.
‘What, is he at work?’
‘Nah, Bro works nights. Does most shit at night time. But he probably remembers that I said you were coming over and staying the night and made some kind of arrangement for dinner, because that would be a pretty fucking embarrassing thing to forget as the so called provider around here. And he probably also remembers that he could cool it on the ninja shit while I have a friend over, because he’s not actually as psycho as he would like me to believe.’
John laughs nervously.
‘Can he hear us?’ he whispers.
Dave gives him the blankest of blank looks. You are so proud. Until he makes a movement to go and pull the manhole cover down. You roll your eyes and heave a mountain of smuppets out the entrance with supernatural speed. He knows better than to try and follow you. It’d be nice if you didn’t have to use sex puppets to teach the kid boundaries, but the least you can do is be predictable.
Dave is predictable right back in the way he flips the fuck out when he is neck deep in puppet dong. He flashsteps onto the kitchen counter and breathes heavily.
‘Bro!’ he says, his voice annoyed.
You roll your eyes and flashstep out of the crawl space so it looks like you were in the hallway all along.
‘Yes, Dave,’ you say, perfectly aloof.
John jumps like a foot in the air and pulls a big ass hammer out of his strife specibus. You raise an eyebrow over your shades.
‘Would it kill you to not booby trap the apartment?’
You cock your head to one side.
‘I don’t know,’ you say, faux-contemplative. ‘I’ve never tried it.’
‘What is up with these puppets?’ John asks. ‘I know you said they had dick noses, but they really look like they have dick noses!’
He picks up a yellow one and looks at it interestedly.
‘That one vibrates,’ you tell him helpfully.
He drops it like it’s one of your killer basslines. You keep your face blank. Dave palms his face.
You notice a slight bulge in the knee of Dave’s skinny jeans, like there’s something padding it.
‘You have a tumble?’ you ask. And that’s the last of your air.
His eyes drop guiltily to his knee.
‘It was nothing,’ he says.
You cross your arms and wait.
John cracks first.
‘It really isn’t much! Just a bit of a graze!’
You inhale slowly, filling your lungs. Okay, now you smell it, but they’re right, there isn’t much blood and you can practically taste the antiseptic cream on it. In a way, it’s a relief, because you’re used to Dave’s blood, you’d never lose control over that, but having it exposed draws your attention more than John’s, means you’re not gonna lose control over his either. And, actually, his is fine too. You were just being cautious over nothing. Better that way, though. You only fed a week ago, you won’t need to for another few weeks, but you don’t like to tempt fate.
‘Striders are supposed to have more grace than that,’ you tell Dave.
‘He was distracted,’ John says, a goofy grin replacing the nervous look he had. He’s just leaning on his hammer like it’s no big deal. You like this kid.
‘Oh?’ you say, smiling slightly at John to keep him talking. Look at you, being all social, using facial expressions.
‘And showing off,’ John says, somehow grinning wider. Holy shit, that’s a happy kid.
‘For someone in particular?’ you ask, coming closer without really meaning to. You force yourself back into full control and lean against the back of the couch.
‘Oh my god, John, shut up,’ Dave whines.
Your smile tugs a little bigger. Your little bro is becoming a teenager, awkward crushes and embarrassing bro-parents and all.
‘Karkat!’ John blurts. He claps his hands over his mouth, his big blue eyes round with shock. ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to say that!’ he says.
‘’S’cool, kid,’ you say. You didn’t mean to pull an influence on him like that either. Usually the shades help. ‘I got one of those faces people tell things to. People see me, they give me the goss. It’s a curse being this trustworthy.’
Dave snorts. You hold your middle finger up for his examination.
‘I don’t care,’ Dave tells John. ‘He would have gotten it out of me anyway.’ He flops down on the couch, close to where you rest, but not quite. ‘He might not look it, but he’s like a thirteen year old girl when it comes to discussing other people’s love lives.’
‘Is it love then?’ you ask.
Dave puts his poker face to use, but his ears are tipped with red.
‘D’you want me to clear off, give you boys some quality BFF time before dinner?’ you offer.
Dave looks to John. Aw, he doesn’t mind if you stay.
‘No way!’ John says. ‘I can see Dave on his own any day, I might never get the full Strider experience again!’
That shocks a laugh out of you. Dave elbows you in the ribs. You fall back and backward roll so you are crouching on the other side of the couch, facing him, and subject him to a thorough tickling. You love that he is ticklish so much. He giggles and screams and kicks and even tries to flashstep away with zero effectiveness. You only stop when his eyes start to water.
John is looking at you in awe.
You straighten your hat a bit self consciously and sit on the far end of the couch so he and Dave can sit next to one another. You accept the controller that Dave hands you and the pair of you proceed to find the most bizarre ways to break your shitty skating game.
‘So, how did you two meet?’ you ask in the tone of a gossipy mother. Dave rolls his whole head at you.
‘My cousin Jade introduced us!’
‘That the girl who smells like the beach and is weirdly cool even though she’s a total dork?’ you ask.
‘ Dude ,’ Dave says.
John laughs. ‘That’s okay, I knew you had a thing for her!’
Dave savagely gets his player stuck in a rail.
‘She brought me along to the skate park after school one day and introduced us. I don’t think she expected us to get along as well as we do, though! She says I’ve stolen you!’
‘I talk to her plenty,’ Dave grumbles. ‘I am just as attentive to her as you.’
‘Yeah, but she’s never been invited to your house!’
‘ You weren’t invited to my house,’ Dave counters.
‘How did that happen?’ you ask. Dave has handed his controller to John and you are getting no small amusement from the way he’s actually trying to play the game properly.
‘He nagged me until I gave in. Same way he got me to agree to sleep at his house.’
‘You slept at his house?’ you ask. Shit, you are such a bad bro-dad.
‘Yeah, last month when you had your own slumber party to go to,’ he says. He’s so casual, like he doesn’t think twice about leaving the house anymore. Which is probably true. You don’t really care, so long as he’s safe, and there isn’t much that could do him harm, especially if he’s with a dork like John.
‘If you were getting up to the stuff I was getting up to on my slumber party, I think we need to have another talk,’ you say, waggling your eyebrows.
‘Gross, bro,’ he says.
‘Talk gross or John gross,’ you ask curiously.
‘ You gross,’ he says. ‘And John is just a friend, stop making everything I say gay, you’re worse than Rose.’
‘Oooh,’ John says. ‘Rose is going to be so jealous that I get to see in your house!’
‘You can invite people over,’ you tell Dave, just in case he doesn’t know that.
‘I know that,’ he says. A bit defensively. ‘John’s here, isn’t he?’
‘I almost don’t want anyone else to come over,’ John says. ‘So I can just be special.’
‘The first is always special,’ you say to him fondly.
He guffaws, goddamn guffaws. Oh god damn, that’s why you like this kid so much: he reminds you of Jake. Speaking of the first. Two decades and it still hurts that he’s gone. You kneel next to the games, looking for one that is a little less broken so that your face is hidden. Except you mostly collect broken games or break functional ones, so your options are limited.
You put a fighting game on that you haven’t broken yet and give your controller to Dave so the boys can verse each other. John picks a hammerkind character and Dave picks a swordkind. You give a little pfft of amusement.
John beats Dave soundly. You don’t even bother to give him shit, you just give him a smirk.
‘Shut up,’ he says, even though you didn’t say anything. ‘If this were a real strife I’d have him beat.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure!’ John says. ‘I’m pretty handy with my hammer!’
‘And you’re shit with your sword,’ you tell Dave.
Dave throws the controller at you. You keep his character to prove that it was Dave’s loss, not the characters. You probably would have picked swordkind anyway. You beat John easily.
‘Woah!’ he says.
‘Just because I don’t spend all my time playing these games,’ Dave sulks.
‘I am hurt,’ you say. ‘I do so many things. Being fucking awesome at these games is but one of them.’
You play games, swapping controllers pretty regularly until Dave tells you to go order pizza. There was pretty much no way that wasn’t going to be what was for dinner. You flashstep to the kitchen to get away from their noise without thinking about it. John doesn’t even react. He didn’t when he saw Dave do the same earlier, they must be close. Still, you should really get better at not freaking out the humans. Even if the humans are pretty chill.
You call the place and then look up what time the sun sets on your phone. You’ll send Dave down to get it, just to be safe. Delivery guys hate having to take all the stairs and you like making Dave do stairs. Win win.
You take your pizza into the kitchen and spit the bite you took for camouflage’s sake into the disposal along with the rest of it. You take a glass of water and try and swill all the pizza residue out of your mouth and into the sink. You hate having food stuff in your body, it takes ages to be absorbed properly.
On a whim, you tear a crust free and leave that on your plate and wait for the boys to finish. Dave looks at the crust on your plate and gives you an amused look. You smirk at him. You’re blending in so fucking well. He grabs a bottle of apple juice for himself and a coke for John from the fridge. You resist the urge to brag to John about how impressive your fridge full of groceries is. It probably isn’t, from the outside. It’s probably bare fucking minimum in caring for a human. And Dave buys most of the groceries anyway.
After a while, Dave casually offers a round of strife with you. You roll your eyes because he is so obviously showing off for John, but the three of you go up to the roof anyway. You turn on the lights so that the puny humans can see and you strife for a while. You go slightly easier on Dave than usual, letting him show off, but you win, obviously. You aren’t going to pander that much. He and John have a round afterwards and even though he must be tired, Dave wins pretty easily. You have the toughest kid. The half vampire thing probably helps.
They have showers and then go to hang out in Dave’s room. You listen to Dave’s music from the couch and wonder if you should have been encouraging this “having friends” thing way before now. Yeah, you don’t like having your space invaded and you still think school is too dangerous with all the adults, but Dave seems happy. He has friends. You knew that before tonight, he talks about them enough, but you didn’t really know . You put on sports in the background so that you aren’t tempted to eavesdrop on the boys and let your mind drift.
You’re surprised when John tiptoes into the kitchen in the middle of the night for a drink of water. You’ve been watching anime since you heard them go to sleep, using your headphones like a god damn gentleman, because you weren’t sure if John would sleep easy if he could hear you moving around. You weren’t really sure if John would hear you if you were dicking around with your mixers or robotics, but watching TV seemed safe.
You slide your headphones off and return his awkward smile. He gets himself a glass of water and then leans against the kitchen counter to drink it. You have no idea what to do in this situation.
‘What’s your name?’ he asks suddenly.
‘Dirk,’ you reply. No one calls you it anymore, but you wouldn’t mind if John did. ‘What, “Bro” not good enough for you?’
‘Why doesn’t Dave call you “dad”?’ he asks, ignoring your question.
You walk over to the kitchen at human pace so you aren’t hissing at each other across the apartment like weirdos.
‘I had him real young,’ you say.
He snorts. You raise your eyebrows.
‘Obviously,’ he says, awkwardly avoiding your eyes.
Stupid non-aging body. Could have been worse. Could have happened at seven or something instead of 24. You can pass for older with your sideburns and your confidence. 24 probably isn’t too young to have a kid, (and really you were closer to 60) but you were an immature idiot. Still are. Stupid non-aging mind.
‘Not only that, his mom kept him a secret from me. So I had no time to get used to the idea of having a sprog before I had one. And being called “dad” freaked me out. By the time I came around to the idea, I kinda liked that he called me “bro” anyway.’ You feel a bit awkward now. You haven’t told anyone but Jane and Dave this. And with Jane it was in a letter, like most of your conversations. You miss her, too. Stupid fragile humans.
‘We don’t exactly have a typical relationship, but I like it. Think he does too. He’s stuck with it, anyway. I’m not great with change.’
‘He thinks the world of you,’ John says. ‘I think you’re a good bro-dad.’
You smile at him because there’s nothing to say to that. If he had just said dad, he would have been wrong. Your kid schooling you on the function of a fridge at the tender age of six was pretty good proof of that. But he is happy and healthy and he tells you what’s going on in his life. Maybe you’re not awful at it.
John finishes his water and goes back to Dave’s room. You check the blinds are all firmly down before settling back in to watch more of this animated schoolgirl getting possessed by her slutty school uniform. You calculate it will be at least seven more episodes before they wake, knowing Dave probably double that. You’ll have to be around for breakfast with John there. You don’t want to prove him wrong.