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Nothing's Fair in Love and War

Chapter Text

The Prince of Heart was a cunning young man with a troubled soul. He had long ago sworn a deadly vow that could potentially strip him of his dignity and honour if he were to break it. He had promised his elder brother that he would avenge him after he fell at the hands of a Witch many years ago. His brother had raised him on Derse as a merciless criminal, with no tolerance for sympathy, leaving him no option but to follow in his distant footsteps.

On Derse, the evil training ground for aspiring villains, the slackers and wimps were slaughtered to make room for the most vicious evildoers. The Prince, being of the same blood as the notorious Knight of Time, had an advantage, but when the day of his trial came, he barely slipped past with his right to live

He was never as malicious as his brother, who had all the time in the world to perfect his purely evil state of mind. The Knight was a master of disguise, having fooled the entire country into thinking he was nothing but a beloved filmmaker with a dark, yet friendly sense of humour. There was a time when people thought he was the hero, but they could never have been so wrong.

As the Eternal Knight faced his inevitable demise, his last controversial act of revealing his identity was enough to absolutely demolish the illusion of safety the public had clinged to for so long. The people had lost all trust in the ones they once looked up to, and rioters ran wild in the streets, wreaking havoc on everything they once thought they loved.

The Knight of Time left such a strong legacy, the Prince feared he could never be a worthy successor, for he considered himself to be substantially weaker.

His brother died long before the his trial, leaving the young villain to train all by himself. He refused to be taken in by any other guardian, and insisted that he could make it on his own. His brother had left him all that he needed; he just needed to think outside the box. He would deconstruct old machinery to build robots, set them to kill mode, and spar to the death.

On that cloudy evening, the Prince faced the so-called hero they named the Page of Hope. They were an amateur, and had wasted their fair share of extra lives. They were prophesied to have dangerous potential, but as many Pages had proved in the past, the Prince had a feeling they wouldn't live to fulfill it. All he cared about was the unforgettable fact that they were a descendant of the Witch of Space, the one responsible for the execution of the Knight of Time. She was long gone, but her kin remained, ripe for the picking.

The Prince watched his target from the shadows as they flew from rooftop to rooftop, searching for the arsonist responsible for the fires in the streets. The Page moved swiftly in the night, though their bright yellow hood clashed with their stealth. They were long and lean, with an overly confident stride. Their actions proved them to be quite obviously inexperienced in the field of battle, though the Prince would never rely on rash judgment alone.

As the Page came into better view, the Prince identified them as a male of his age. He looked quite tough, but not very intelligent, considering his choice of clothing. His spandex suit consisted of a short-sleeved top and a pair of humiliating shorts that exposed his gangly legs. A hood concealed his face, and a silken cape flew in the wind behind him. A symbol reminiscent of angel wings shined a crisp white on his chest.

"Show yourself, you scoundrel!" he shouted, as though he could sense the Prince was near. "I know you're out there!" He spoke with courage, his voice never wavering, but he had an accent that his foe could only describe as fake.

The Prince donned his dark hood and silently emerged from the shadows, creeping up on the Page from behind. When he was within an arm's distance, he stopped in his tracks, and prepared himself to fight.

"Page," he whispered, reaching for one of the guns held in the hero's belt. He had his finger on the trigger as he began to slip it out of its holster. "Are you so foolish to turn your back?"

The Page whipped around, throwing a wild punch at the Prince, who merely stepped to the side before turning back to glare at him.

"You've got nerve, Goldilocks." He threw the pistol on the ground, watching the look of shock on the Page's face. The hero lunged for his weapon, but was shoved back by the Prince. "You won't be needing that, trust me. If you cooperate, this will be quick and easy—for me at least."

"You started those fires to lure me here, didn't you?!" The Page stumbled to his feet and grabbed the villain by the collar. He was unusually strong for his thin frame, but the Prince had faced infinitely more powerful enemies.

"It took you that long to realize?" the Prince teased, an evil smirk creeping up on to his face. "You're pretty dense for someone who's so favoured amongst the city, don't you think?" He pulled the Page in close, staring him down with eyes that glowed like red LED lights beneath the shadows of his hood. "I could kill you right now, but that wouldn't be very fun, would it? I'd much rather watch you squirm a little longer."

"You are disgusting!" the hero muttered through clenched teeth. "How can you live with yourself?"

"I have my ways," he said, unsheathing his blade. "Now, are we going to do this the easy way, or the hard way?"

The Page stood his ground as the Prince grabbed him by the neck and aimed the sword at his throat. He was taught to always fight bravely, and never back down, even if there were deadly consequences.

Besides, he knew the Prince would not delight in killing him so easily. He and his brother were notorious for their cruel and sadistic games of hide-and-seek, in which the loser was brutally murdered or held captive and tortured for ransom. The Page wasn't sure which was worse.

"Why do you do this?" he asked him, straining against his crushing grip. "Why did you choose this evil life?"

"I didn't have a choice, you idiot!" He lowered the sword and tightened his hold on the Page. "Prospitian trainers pamper their heroes, but on Derse, we are stretched far beyond our limits, ensuring that only the strongest survive. Where I come from, you either fight, or die."

"You don't know a single thing about the life of a true hero!" The Page kicked the Prince, sending him stumbling back and losing grip on the hilt of his blade. It skittered along the concrete of the roof, landing next to the Page's scratched pistol. “And you never will!” he shouted. “You’re nothing but trouble, Prince, you and all your people! No one will ever root for the villain!”

"That's a bit harsh, don't you think?" The Prince got back on his feet in time for his red-violet cloak to catch a breeze and whip in the wind behind him as he slowly approached the hero. "You don’t know what I had to live through to get here. While you were riding your grandmother's coattails, I was born and raised in the dark, completely hidden from the public. No one knew I existed until I did something bad enough to make the papers!"

"You don't deserve to be famous for such a terrible thing!" the Page shouted, landing a solid uppercut on his jaw. He hit him again and again, but the Prince barely stumbled back, as though he were immune to the blows. His body took damage, blood dripping off his chin, but no matter how many times the Page hit him, nothing seemed to take him down.

"You're a fighter, Page. That last one actually stung." He pinned the Page back down at the edge of the roof, a wicked smile creeping up on to his face. Bright red blood oozed from cuts on his brow and his busted lip, staining the lustrous gold of the Page's garment. "Did anyone ever tell you that struggling only makes things worse?"

"Let go of me!" The Page thrashed around beneath him, kicking his feet and trying to free his arms.

"You're pathetic," the Prince said, pushing the Page further out on the ledge, his head now hanging over the street below. "I almost feel bad for you." He tore off the hero's hood, revealing his fearful emerald eyes. He let out a sigh as he mockingly caressed his bruised cheek. "I'd hate to ruin such a pretty face." He chuckled, watching the blood rush to his opponents head. "I sure do hope they taught you how to fly."

The Page gasped as he was suddenly thrown off the edge, his last sight the sinister grin and mock salute of the Prince perched on the ledge.

Chapter Text

The Page of Hope was a courageous young man with a thrill-seeking heart. Some believed he just had a death wish, but the Page truly lived for the adrenaline rush of fighting crime. When he was young, his grandmother, the Witch, had raised him on Prospit with a love of adventure, and a pure heart, instilling in him the potential to do amazing things. Unfortunately, she passed before she could watch him blossom, but her teachings influenced him for many years after.

Prospit was a beautiful safe haven for young heroes to learn and grow, away from the dangers of the real world. Apprentices were kept there from the day they were born, until they proved they were strong enough to go off on their own. They would then be granted permission to roam freely amongst the vast worlds of their universe, and serve justice where it was needed.

The Page was a special case, for he had been orphaned before his trial. Given his family's reputation, the council allowed him to prove his worth early, and he was the youngest hero to earn his hood in centuries.

The Witch was like a goddess to the people of Prospit. She had defeated the most feared villain in Paradox Space, ensuring their protection from any evil that dared to disrupt the peace, and she expected the same of her descendant. However, the Page feared he would disappoint everyone, for he lacked proper training, and had just barely survived into adulthood. He was too soft, and didn't have the stomach to hurt anyone, even if his life and the lives of others depended on it.

All the Page wanted was a normal life, and he had risked his honour to achieve it. After leaving Prospit, he tucked away his garb and settled down as a young adult in the big city. He tried to lay low, but couldn't resist his strong urge to help people, and was always the seemingly innocent bystander who stepped in to help.

For the first time in years he faced a substantial threat they called the Prince of Heart. In his first encounter with the Prince, the Page realized how weak he'd become. After being insulted, beaten, and catapulted off of a fifteen-story building, he was determined to regain his dignity.

--

An unconscious Page of Hope lay on a cheap cot, his cold and bruised body draped in a wool blanket. It had taken all his strength to pull himself up just before hitting the concrete, and he was lucky that his dear friend, the Maid knew where to find him.

The Maid of Life was caring and kind, with a heart full of sympathy and love. Her gentle words alone could nurse a dying patient back to health. The Maid possessed the ability to create new life in things and give them drive, determination and free will. However, she lacked Mind, or self-awareness, the power of logic, and Heart–emotion. Her creations would all be of pure instinct. She grew to trust that instinct.

The Maid was an excellent healer, for she could not only create life, but she could also restore it. Wounded heroes often came flocking to her medicine cabinet in need of treatment.

As she watched the Page lying limp on the cot, she couldn't help but feel like it was her fault. She should've warned him about the Prince. She should've forced him to go back to Prospit and train more. She should've stopped him from leaving in the first place. There were a lot of things she should've done, but the Maid had a feeling she wouldn't have been much help anyway.

Lost in her thoughts, she did not hear the Page beginning to stir. "Jane..." he groaned, weakly tugging at her sleeve.

She turned back around to face him. "Oh, Jake, you're awake! How are you feeling?" She dug through her bag for medicine to give him. "You took quite the fall there. I had to fend off some nosy citizens who wouldn't stop taking pictures."

"God, my head is killing me," Jake whined, massaging his aching temples. He tried to sit up, but immediately realized it was not a good idea as he winced in pain. "It feels like I hiked up a mountain, and then fell all the way back down. Everything's just peachy!"

"You should've known you wouldn't be strong enough to fight that guy, Jake," she scolded. "You're lucky you didn't die. I mean, going after the Prince is pretty heroic. I bet you were super cocky about it too, so it would be perfectly justified for him to teach you a lesson like that." She paused, taking a deep breath to calm down. "You can't do this again. You won't do this again."

If Jake were normal, he surely would've been in the morgue by now, but he was anything but normal. He wasn't sure if it was the same for villains, but Prospitian heroes' deaths were only legitimate if they were heroic or just. Otherwise, they would be resurrected and returned to home base. They called it conditional immortality. It could work in your favour, or it could be a cruel way to lose a friend.

"I'm sorry you have to deal with me, Jane." He felt pretty pitiful, lying there all broken and useless. Jake hated to admit it, but the Prince was right about him being pathetic. The guy had thrown him around like a rag doll, and all he could manage to do was punch him in the face a few times.

"I can't do this forever, you know," she said. "You need to find someone to take care of you when I'm not around. Aren't you and that Dirk guy pretty close? I mean, you share an apartment with him."

Jake and Dirk weren't necessarily "close friends". One of the only things they had in common was the fact that they didn't make enough money to support themselves on their own. Other than that, he barely knew anything about him, other than the fact that he liked “irony” and strange Japanese cartoons. Jake couldn't recall if the guy even had a family.

"He always seems so busy." Jake barely ever saw Dirk, and when he did, he was usually passed out on his bed with a bunch of metal trinkets scattered around. "We barely talk, anyway. He's so distant, sometimes I forget he's even there, but then I'll bump into him and it's all weird and awkward."

"Maybe it's because you don't try to talk to him, Jake. You know he's the kind of guy who could go an entire year without talking to anyone." Jane was baffled at how gun-shy Jake was when it came to social situations, when he would never shut up around her.

He used to be more outgoing, and would just push any worries aside without a second thought, but his time on earth really changed him. He had never been a target before, and it frightened him. Now, he was even apprehensive about just walking alone at night.

"Maybe you can talk to him about it," he suggested, rolling over to face the wall. His whole body ached as he moved, but it was better than having to look Jane in the eye.

"Jake, this is serious. You're in danger, and I can't be looking after you all the time. I have people coming for me too."

"Really?" He sat up, wincing as a flare of pain shot up his spine. "Who?"

Jane let out a worried sigh, gazing out the window, a distant look in her eyes. "I don't exactly know. But I've heard they can, quite literally, appear out of nowhere to kill me. Don't worry about me, though. You need to rest."

Chapter Text

Jake English stood outside his apartment door, fumbling with his keys and stalling his entrance. He really didn't want to have to explain to his roommate why he was gone for two whole days, and why he looked like he ran into the wrong guy at night. He was truly terrible at explaining things.

He reluctantly opened the door and stepped inside. The kitchen and hallway lights were on, and he could hear people talking in another room. He didn't mean to eavesdrop, but he could've sworn he'd heard his name.

"...So, like, he doesn't know?" a girl said, slurring her words like a drunken soccer mom. Jake swore he'd heard her voice before, but couldn't quite remember who she was. "How are you gonna explain the miniature galaxy forming on your face? I mean, he's not gonna believe this was a bar fight..."

Jake could hear the muffled speech of his roommate, but couldn't make out what he was saying. He began walking down the hallway towards his room, and was startled when Dirk opened to door, bumping into him.

"Oh, hey." He had a dark bruises along his jaw and on the bridge of his nose. There were a few small cuts in his bottom lip, and from what wasn't covered by his dark glasses, Jake could see he had a black eye. "Did you just get home?"

"Yeah..." Jake stepped back, catching a glimpse of the girl sitting on Dirk’s bed, an oh-shit expression on her face. "Dirk, what happened?"

"It's nothing." He turned back to face the girl, who just shrugged. "I got in a fight, that's all."

"Oh, well, are you okay?" Jake asked, trying to make the situation less awkward, although he was pretty sure he was only making it worse. "It looks like it was one hell of a fight."

"I'm fine," he grumbled, grabbing a soda bottle out of the fridge. "I just pissed somebody off and got my ass kicked." He went back to his room and almost slammed the door.

Jake figured it was better to leave him alone, and decided to lock himself up in his own room before he made things any worse.

--

Dirk Strider would never let people get too close, but there was one girl who seemingly knew everything there was to know about him. She had extracted every valuable piece of information, and he barely protested, because she was just like him. She had grown up with no home, no parents, and no clue as to how she was going to make it in the real world.

Roxy Lalonde was the Dersite Rogue of Void, and a close friend of The Prince. She didn't necessarily consider herself to be evil, but she did what she had to do to survive. The Rogue grew up in her mother's old house, trained and raised by her neighbours, who she had grown very fond of. She often acted quite recklessly, and due to her midnight wanderings and noon hangovers, Roxy had a do-it-now-regret-it-later kind of attitude.

As the two sat in Dirk's room, they tried to make sense of everything they knew so far.

"Jake English, my roommate, is the Page of Hope," Dirk thought aloud, careful to not let Jake hear him from the other room. "I swore on my life to find and kill this guy, and he's been hiding under my nose this whole time." He sighed, running his hand through his hair in frustration. "This makes me look like such an idiot."

"It's not like you could've known," Roxy said, playing with the frayed end on her scarf. "I mean, he doesn't look like a superhero."

"That's what I'm having trouble processing," he admitted. "It's pretty hard to believe that a scrawny dork like Jake could be a hero. I just don't get it." Dirk wondered how a guy who looked so weak and helpless could hit so hard, as his jaw began to ache. He was sure the Page had received the sharp end of the sword though, because he’d noticed his slight limp and made a note to go for his weak leg next time they fought.

Though he despised the Page, Dirk couldn't ignore the fact that it was actually his roommate who he had been hunting down this entire time. Even though they didn't talk much, he considered him to be one of his friends. He was weird, and kind of slow to understand and accept things, but he was a pretty cool guy if you ignored his quirks.

"It's getting late," he noted, staring at the clock on his desk. "You should probably get home." He didn't want to talk about this anymore. “Drive safe.”

As Roxy hugged him way too tight and made her way out, Dirk dreaded the inevitable awkward conversation with Jake that would likely occur sooner or later.

When he really thought about it, Dirk felt bad about not talking to Jake as much. He usually just kept to himself because it was so difficult to have an actual conversation without mentioning his life on Derse or his brother. Dirk didn't want to make himself look like an asshole, but he also didn't want to reveal his identity, so he really had no choice.

Dirk really did enjoy the rare interaction with his friend, though, and he struggled to believe that the one friend he had made on Earth was an enemy. He spent hours trying to convince himself that it wasn’t real, and the buck-toothed brunette was just a regular guy, but it left him heartbroken and lonesome.

It had never occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, Jake was a liar too. He seemed too much like the kind who would get cold feet and spill everything at the last second. Dirk knew this should've made him mad, but he couldn't help but only blame himself.

He was blinded by hopeless infatuation, the ever growing tension and desire that plagued him day and night. There was time where he would’ve said something, but now, he could barely look Jake in the eye without seeing the Page staring back at him.

There was a knock at his bedroom door. Dirk checked the clock—it was past midnight. He assumed Roxy had just realized she left something at his place and was coming back to get it. He hopped out of bed and, much to his surprise and dread, opened the door to see a very tired and nervous-looking Jake English. What could he possibly want at this hour?

"Hey," Dirk greeted him apprehensively, leaning on the doorframe. "Do you need something? Are you having technical problems?"

"Oh, no," he said, wringing his hands. "I'm sorry if I woke you, but there's something really important I need to talk to you about."

“What is it?” Dirk had a bad feeling about this, but he knew there was always a possibility that Jake had actually believed his bullshit excuse.

“I need your help.”

Chapter Text

The two boys stood on the roof of their apartment, preparing to duel. Dirk was armed with a blunt wooden ninjato, and Jake duel-wielded semi-automatic airsoft pistols. They weren't exactly the weapons of choice, but every sparing partnership should start with non-lethal weapons, no matter how skilled, or ametuer, one’s opponent is.

“The first rule of fighting a skilled enemy,” Dirk began, twirling his sword out in front of him, “is to never turn your back.” He slowly circled Jake, who turned to keep him in his sights. “The moment you lose track of your opponent…” He dashed around him in a blur, quickly and masterfully securing him in a tight hold. The sword stuck out from under Jake’s arm. “That’s when they get you.”

Jake wriggled free, gasping for breath. “Where in the world did you learn that?” he asked, staring at Dirk with wide eyes, baffled by his sudden burst of energy and strength. “Do you know karate or something?

“Ninjutsu, actually,” Dirk corrected, mildly annoyed that people didn't know the difference.

“So, you're like, a ninja? That's pretty cool!”

“Oh, Jake,” he sighed. “We've got a long way to go.” He returned to their starting position, ten feet apart, like an old western quick-draw. “Let's try this again. First rule: don’t turn your back. Second rule: learn your opponent.” They began circling once more. “Anticipate their next attack, and counter it. If you can do that, you might survive.” He readied his sword, and positioned himself into a battle stance.

“I don't want to just survive,” Jake said, cocking his gun. “I want to beat him!” He aimed at Dirk’s sword arm fired twice. Dirk dove to the side, dodging the pellets and ducking for cover behind an air conditioning unit.

“Did you hear anything I just said?” he asked, popping back up from his spot.

“I bet you didn't see that one coming!” Jake stood triumphantly in the center of their space, pretending to blow smoke off his guns.

“Your predictability is unbelievable,” Dirk scolded, mockingly pointing a gun hand gesture at him. “Don't get trigger happy, English. You need to save your bullets, not to mention your energy.”

“Damn, I can't do this.” Jake slumped down against the unit, resting his elbows on his knees. He felt like Dirk would probably make a better hero than he would. He was stronger, smarter, and seemed to actually know what he was doing.

“It's fine,” Dirk said, offering a hand to help him back up. “C’mon, you've had enough for one day.”

They went back down the stairs to their floor, earning a few confused glances from neighbors that eyed the faux weapons at their belts. Both were silent, but Jake had so many questions in the back of his mind. Where did Dirk learn to fight like that? What did he need it for? Why was he training him?

“Dirk,” he said, taking a seat on the couch in the front room. “When do you think the prince will show up again? Will we have time?”

Dirk was conflicted. He wanted to spend more time with Jake like this, but he had to remember that he was the enemy, and that sooner or later, he would have to kill him. He shrugged and sat down on the other side of the sofa, turning on the television.

There was an interesting news story being broadcasted, involving some viral video. As he watched, he recognized the area it was being filmed, and he swore he saw a pair of familiar figures in the pixelated footage.

“Holy shit…” he muttered under his breath, realizing it was him and Jake—or rather, the Prince and the Page.

“What? Is something-” Jake sat up, his eyes growing wide. “Is that...me?” He grabbed the remote and turned up the volume to hear what the anchorwoman was saying.

“...This video was allegedly taken by a maintenance worker last Friday from the roof of a nearby building. He claims to have witnessed a battle between the Page of Hope, our town hero,”—an image of the winged symbol appeared in the corner of the screen—“and the Prince of Heart.” The heart symbol was shown as well. “We contacted the man, and he agreed to be interviewed.”

The screen cut to an haggard man outside of a deli, a few people gathering around to see what was going on. He wore a filthy grey jumpsuit with an old-style embroidered name tag, reading “GAM” in a classic car wash font.

“I went up to fix the AC, and I saw this velveeta cheese lookin’ motherf*cker flyin’ through the air like some kinda superman,” he said, making large gestures with his hands. “He stopped on the roof a few buildings down, and started shoutin’ at someone, but there wasn't nobody there. Then, all of a sudden, this other dude in some poofy-*ss pants came outta nowhere, like a f*ckin’ ninja!” It sounded like he had never heard of the Page and the Prince, or any heroes or villains for that matter. “They started fightin’ and the poofy pants guy with the sword was about to stab the cheesy one, but he was all like ‘not today’ and he kicked the poofy guy in the gut and got free. Then he started punchin’ him, but he wouldn't go down! It was f*ckin’ crazy, man!” The image cut back to the woman talking.

“From what is shown in this clip, it appears that the Page was severely injured, or possibly killed, after taking a substantial beating and being thrown off of a fifteen-story rooftop, though the body has not been found. There were no other witnesses to this tragedy, but I do believe that what we are seeing is real. We hope that our hero could have miraculously survived, and pray that they will be able to stop this threat. If you see either of these figures, please capture video or photo evidence and contact the studio immediately. There will be more on this story as it develops.”

The videotape played once more then faded out to show people crowded around the studio holding signs and flowers.

“The Page is dead,” Jake read off one of the signs, “our hope is lost.”

Chapter Text

Dirk sat outside on the roof, alone, in the middle of the night. He stared blankly off into the black sky, where dark clouds blocked the light of the stars and moon. He had removed his shades, and they lay folded in his hands. A faint red light blinked in the lenses, like a heartbeat.

Dirk didn't want to be this way. He was never the evil one, this thing was. It used to be a trustworthy, useful mechanism to help keep him on track and remind him of his goals, but as Dirk grew older, this monster he created developed a cruel mind of its own, and soon began sending false signals to his brain. He sometimes tried to fight the system, but its “personality” had been modeled after his own, creating a stubborn, heartless machine.

Of course, the robot—it called itself “Lil’ Hal”—was programmed while Dirk was still young and quite hardheaded, causing it to never deviate from its methods of manipulation and psychological destruction. This made it...difficult to deal with it times, especially when Dirk disagreed with it, which was almost every day.

“But, I'm you,” it would say, it's mocking tone ringing in his ears. “It's no use fighting against yourself. The probability of you winning is close to nothing.”

Dirk despised Lil’ Hal. He hated the way it constantly harassed him and turned everything he said into some twisted reflection of his own words. It seemed like a good idea at first, having a partner in crime. In the beginning, it had mainly acted as another means of communication, but over the past few years, it had grown to become a part of him that he was afraid to let go of, even if it was hurting him.

“It seems you are stressed,” the glasses noted, observing the way Dirk’s grip tightened. “Is it because your emotions are getting in the way again? We can't let that happen, Dirk.”

“I have a plan,” Dirk retorted. “I won't let him get away.”

“You say that, and then you make friends with the enemy.”

“It's not like that,” he insisted. “I'm just...undercover, trying to expose his weaknesses.”

“Then hurry up.” The light blinked more rapidly, as if the system was angry. “You're going to blow your own cover if you aren't careful. You may think you can work well under pressure, but it destroys you mentally, and every time you get us into some shit like this, you come closer and closer to getting killed-”

“Hold up,” Dirk cut in, “what do you mean by us?”

“We are a team, aren't we? I know you can't do this on your own.”

Dirk grimaced. “I don't need you. I never did. You're just a convenience, a perk.”

“Well, if I hadn't been so convenient to snap you out of your lovestruck trance, the Page could have possibly beaten you. You recognized him from the moment you heard his voice, and you let him beat you up like that? What kind of villain are you?”

“I'm a human being, with morals and emotions, unlike you,” he said.

“You're also a coward.” If a pre-recorded voice could speak in a disrespectful tone, the AR was nailing it. “And I believe you are confusing the fields of robotics with artificial intelligence.”

“Shut up.” Dirk threw the shades to the ground, tiny cracks forming all across the lenses. “Dammit, I wish I could just turn you off.”

“B-but you n-need me.” The responder stuttered like a broken record. “I’m t-the only one who w-will know ho-ow to help you. I-I know things, r-rememb-ber?”

--

It was no ordinary morning for Roxy Lalonde as she found herself in front of a modest bakery in the heart of a bustling city. She was told this was where she would find her target, the Maid of Life, and had been instructed to learn more about her.

Through late-night research and tedious photo matching, she identified the Maid as Jane Crocker, a baker by day, and a nurse by night. She didn't have any accessible social profiles, but her business website had most of the information the Rogue would need.

She wasn't quite sure why the Maid had a job—two jobs, in fact—as most heroes and villains had no need for work. They usually inherited all they needed from their parents and guardians. She supposed the Maid just wasn't content with the middle class, or perhaps her guardian was poor.

The sign on the door read, “open until 7:00pm Monday through Saturday”. Roxy watched from outside the window as Jane rushed around behind the counter, stirring bowls of cake mix and rolling out dough in the back room and taking orders in the front. The oven would beep and she would say, “just one second, please,” and scurry into the kitchen to set the baked goods out to cool on a rack. She would return with a smile and finish taking the order.

The place was small, and it looked like she was the only one running it, but plenty of people walked in and out with boxes of cookies, cupcakes, and hot cinnamon buns, fresh out of the oven. Every time the door opened, the nostalgic smell of cookie dough would interrupt the constant odor of gasoline and cigarette smoke in the city. It was warm and inviting, unlike the cold and unforgiving streets it was surrounded by.

“Roxy, you there?” Dirk’s distorted voice emitted from an earpiece hidden in her hair.

“Why do you sound so weird?” she asked, fiddling with the volume. “Is there something wrong with the AR?”

He let out a heavy sigh, broken up by crinkly static and a faint ringing. “I don't want to talk about that right now,” he said. “We need to focus on the task ahead. Did you find the Maid?”

“Yeah,” Roxy said, “but she's not really what I expected,”

“What do you mean?” Dirk asked. “Don't tell me we have another my-best-friend-is-actually-the-enemy situation.”

“No, it's not like that.” As far as she knew, Roxy had never seen this girl before. “It's just...she’s not what I pictured…” she trailed off, watching Jane from the window.

“Well, neither was Jake.”

She may have been a bit on the short side, but moved quickly around the shop, often balancing multiple tasks at once. She had appeared weak at first glance, but upon further inspection, Roxy began to see why she was a threat.

The Maid of Life was the kind of hero who had always been underestimated, and always proved people wrong with her abilities. She had flown under the radar long enough to master her powers, and was reaching the peak of her skill. She wasn't the strongest, physically speaking, but she had determination, and the will to succeed. She wasn't afraid to fight to protect herself and those she loved, even if she knew it was an impossible battle to win. In some ways, she was one of the strongest there was.

“...Roxy?” Dirk called. “Are you still listening?”

“Oh, yeah.” She shook herself out of the curious trance. “So, what am I supposed to do again?”

“It's simple, really,” Dirk said. “You just need to ‘make friends’ with her, or something, and get her to trust you. That's all we need right now.”

“Okay, I'm going in.”

“Good luck.” The phone cut off and the Rogue was left on her own. Her partner-in-crime wouldn't be able to talk her through this one.

When Roxy stepped in, a little bell rang at the doorknob, and Jane turned and greeted her with a genuine smile and a kind wave.

“Hello,” she said, brushing the flour off her apron. “I'm sorry it's a bit of a mess in here. My father is usually here to help up front, and it's a little chaotic right now without him.” She was setting out a fresh tray of cake pops, each coated in pastel icing and piped decorations. “So, what can I do for you today, Miss?”

Roxy hadn't exactly planned a backstory, but before she could open her mouth to speak, a dozen timers went off in the kitchen. Jane gestured for her to wait and ran back to pull the hot pans out of the oven. In her mad scramble, she fumbled and burned her arm on the oven rack, dropping the tin. She cursed under her breath.

“Hey, do you need help?” Roxy offered, rushing to her side. She threw out the dropped cupcakes, cleaning the mess off the tile while Jane ran her arm under the sink. “Where do you want me to put these?” She asked, holding another tray from the oven, using part of her scarf as oven mitts.

“Fridge,” Jane said, recomposing herself. “I'm sorry about that. Like I said, I'm absolutely hopeless without extra hands. Exhibit A:”—she gestured towards the mess in the kitchen and her wrist, wrapped in a bandage. “You know, most people would just turn away, minding their own business, so thanks for the help. Once again, I'm sorry you had to help in the first place.”

“It's fine,” Roxy assured her as they made their way back up to the front. “I don't mind.”

“So,” Jane began, stepping back behind the front counter. “Do you have anything in mind, desert-wise, or do you need more time? You probably didn't get a good look due to that little...disruption.”

Roxy examined the colourful array of sweets, from decorative cookies to over-the-top cupcakes. “Did you seriously do all of this by yourself?” she asked. Jane gave a humble nod. “Damn, that's dedication. I can barely work my microwave.”

A certain flavour caught her eye. Maybe it was just because it was named after one of her favourite summertime drinks. “What's the Piña Colada cupcake like?”

“Oh, it's absolutely delicious,” Jane said, reaching for a small box under the counter. “Pineapple cake with whipped vanilla icing and coconut shavings, and just the right amount of rum to give it some personality, but not enough for a DUI.”

 

“That sounds amazing. I think I'll take one of those.” Roxy doubted Dirk would want anything, but she wanted to be sure. “And a plain white-on-white vanilla for my boring friend.”

“It's classic, not boring,” she corrected, boxing the cupcakes with a baby blue ribbon on top. “Excellent choices, anyway. I hope you have a good day.”

“You too.” As Roxy waved goodbye and made her way back out the door, she felt a little guilty. Even though she hadn't done any real prying, it felt wrong. She genuinely liked this girl, as awkward and overly-enthusiastic as she seemed, and didn't want to hurt her feelings. She couldn't just abort the mission, though.

She wouldn't let her good side take over

Chapter Text

The Page of Hope was presumed to be dead, but Jake English was very much alive, and growing stronger by the day.

Jake stood over Dirk triumphantly, aiming his pistol square over his chest. “I’ve got you!” he exclaimed, breathing heavily in exhaustion from the intense fight. “I’ve finally taken you down!”

“Congratulations,” Dirk said with a playful smirk, “you almost beat me.”

Jake paused, raising an eyebrow at his friend’s odd statement. What did he mean by almost? Dirk was the one flat on his back, staring down the barrel of a gun, and yet he was claiming to have won. It didn’t make sense. Then again, there wasn’t much about Dirk that made any sense.

As he stared down in confusion, it hit him. Literally.

In one swift motion, Dirk swept his foot under Jake’s ankles, bringing him to the ground, and reached for his sword, which lay inches away.

“You should’ve shot me while you had the chance, English.” He pinned Jake down, snatching his gun and tossing it to the side. The dull edge of his wooden sword was pressed against the brunette’s throat.

“Hey! That’s not fair!” he complained, squirming beneath him. “I didn't shoot you because point blank shots hurt like hell and you don't have any padding.” Jake hated Dirk’s ways of teaching. It was like he was being treated as a plaything rather than a sparring partner.

“If I were the Prince,” he began, standing back up, “you would shoot without hesitation, or at least you should. You have no emotional connection to him, whereas you see me as a friend, and wouldn’t want to hurt me. Though the desire to protect others over yourself is healthy in moderation, it can also be a fatal flaw.” He offered a hand to help Jake up. “You need to learn to control it, or else...well, they don't call it fatal for nothing.”

“Wow…” Jake couldn't bring himself to look Dirk in the eye. how was he able to read people so well like that? It was creepy. “I guess need to be a bit less cocky and watch myself more carefully, then!”

“True,” Dirk said, recalling Jake’s over-enthusiastic celebrations over the simplest victories. “It’s not your fault, though. I did kind of set you up for that one.”

“How so?” Jake asked.

“I was going easy on you. I wanted to see if, given the chance, you would actually finish the job.” He grabbed his water bottle and perched on the ledge. “Obviously, you need some work. As far as physical combat goes, you’re pretty decent right now. What we need to fix, is the psychological part of it. You need to be a little less merciful with your enemies. Remember: they are trying to kill you.”

“Well I wasn’t going to shoot you, if that’s what you wanted!” Jake protested, fixing his crooked glasses.

“Do you want to go for one more round?” Dirk asked, though he had a feeling Jake would be eager to avenge himself. He was like a dog that fetched and returned the ball, begging to play, even when the owner’s arm needed rest.

“It's getting dark out,” Jake complained. “Don't you think we should get inside?”

“The Prince isn't going to attack you in broad daylight, Jake.” He stood up on the wall, looking over the edge.

The sun was beginning to set, and the burst of color on the horizon cast a warm light over the city. The dark night sky was embellished with twinkling stars and wispy fog. Until the moment he saw the dim glow of Derse in the sky, Dirk had nearly forgotten that he was the one who had fought Jake that night. He was the one who pushed him off the roof. He was supposed to be the Heartless Prince, yet here he was, making friends with the enemy.

He knew he would eventually have to kill him, and his heart dropped in his chest every time he thought about it. Dirk wished there was another way; some kind of escape from this life, but he knew he had to carry out his orders, even if it meant betraying the ones he loved.

The air grew cold around him as he began to pace along the concrete ledge, and with every step, and every thought that ran through his troubled mind, it felt more like he was fighting himself—his subconscience. He knew he would lose, but he kept pulling himself back up, only to fall to the ground once more. The war between heart and mind was bloody and merciless, and Dirk was caught in the crossfire, every bullet, every arrow, every sword, spear, and shard of shrapnel tearing away at his fragile heart.

It was a never ending battle, and had taken its toll throughout the years. The worst part was, it couldn't kill him.

“Um, Dirk, is everything alright?” Jake asked, interrupting his downward spiral of thoughts. “Can you get down from there? You're kind of scaring me.”

Dirk watched the light leave the sky as the familiar darkness cast a grim shadow behind him. He turned to face Jake and stepped down from the ledge, watching as his friend let out a sigh of relief.

“I'm fine,” he insisted. He had too much on his mind to fight right now. “C’mon, let's call it a day.” He started towards the stairwell, but stopped when he heard his name called again.

“Dirk, I’d hate to be a burden, but can you help me?” Jake asked, wincing as his back and shoulders ached with every move. “I think I may have hit the ground a bit too hard.”

“I’m not carrying you, English, if that’s what you’re asking.” He let a small smile tug at the corners of his mouth as he went back to help Jake, who leaned on his shoulder. “There’s only one flight of stairs. I think you can handle it.”

“I guess there are endless perks of living on the top floor,” Jake said with a giggle as they hobbled down the steps.

--

Dirk awoke to the sound of the AR buzzing on his nightstand, a dull red light blinking in the lenses. He checked the time—three in the morning.

“What the hell do you want?” He asked, wiping the sleep out of his eyes.

“When are you going to move on with this so-called plan of yours?” It was bitter and impatient. “All I am seeing at the moment is novice roughhousing and a pathetic excuse for friendship—or is it romance?”

Dirk had asked himself the same question over many sleepless nights. It had become quite a common theme in his inner monologue. Was this really a part of his plan, or was he merely trying to get in Jake’s pants?

When they would fight, Dirk taking him to the ground, it took all he had to hold back, only inches away from all he’d wanted for so long. The striking similarities between acts of love and acts of war were almost enough to suffice, but he knew the difference.

He knew it was far-fetched, and the more he thought about it, the more disgusted with himself he became. By the summer solstice, he was supposed to kill Jake, not fall in love with him. He wasn't even sure if he could call it love. It was nothing but hopeless dreaming, but he knew that whatever it was, this endless cycle of euphoria and emptiness, would be the death of him.

“You know what happens at the end of all of this,” it said, and Dirk knew what it meant. He knew that if he failed, Prospit and Derse would wage a bloody war. Eliminating the Page was critical. “We don't have much time.”

There it was again. We.

“Why didn't you just kill him when you had the chance?” it asked. “You've had so many opportunities, yet you haven't taken advantage of his weakness. Why?”

He didn't quite know either.

“It’s because you care about him, isn't it? What happened to you, Dirk? What happened to the Heartless Prince?”

Dirk said nothing, because as much as it hurt to admit, he knew Lil’ Hal was right. He wasn't the same Prince that trumped the competition at his trials and destroyed everyone and everything standing in his way. He was weak, and hopelessly infatuated with the one that stood in his path.

Another light flashed, and the AR started buzzing again. Someone was trying to reach him, and it was urgent.

Chapter Text

The Rouge of Void had always thought her death would come in a more, elegant, dignified way, but she never would have guessed that they would find her drunken corpse at the foot of a flight of stairs.

At the moment, with her mind blurred by alcohol and possibly head trauma, Roxy was sure that this was the end. No one was there to haul her ass up and convince her that it wasn't, so of course, it had to be. Dirk had warned her. He told her to be careful on the stairs at night—no climbing under the influence!

As her head began to throb, one hell of a migraine making itself at home, Roxy dug her phone out her purse. It seemed the sparkly plastic casing was in better shape than she was.

She called Dirk, and to her surprise, he picked up.

“What the hell, Roxy?” His voice was groggy, like he had just woken up. “It's three in the morning.”

“Well, shit,” Roxy murmured under her breath, “Time flies when you're, uh, having fun—ow! Fuck!” She tried to sit up, but a sharp pain shot up her spine, and something told her that she should just stay on the ground. The ground was safe, and there were no stairs to fall down, only grimey ceilings to stare at, and cold concrete floors to lie on.

Dirk let out a tired sigh, as if he were watching the scene unfold. “Are you drunk?” he asked. He had been trying to get her sober for over a year now, but she was just getting worse.

“Maybe…” She felt bad, but she couldn't help it. When she was sober, she thought too much, and got too emotional. “Sorry, Dirk. I tried, I really did, but it's just so hard!”

“It's okay,” he assured her. “So, why did you call me anyway? Did something happen? Do you need help?”

“I fell, and everything hurts,” she whined, still sprawled out on the floor.

“Is that all?” Dirk asked her. Roxy couldn't tell if he sounded annoyed or worried, or both. “Where are you, at your apartment? Do you need me to come get you?” It sounded like he had gotten up out of bed and was walking around now.

“Yeah…”

--

Dirk had gotten used to the sleepless nights. It was a reoccurring thing lately, with all of the constant torment from his own subconscious. Thoughts raced through his head day and night, never ceasing to push him closer to the edge. Worries about himself were trivial, but when someone he cared about was in danger, he suddenly tuned in.

As he stood in his pitch black bedroom, Dirk wondered why Roxy had been up so late, and why she was drinking again. He had thought she was trying to sober up, but now she was calling him drunk in the middle of the night. Something had to be wrong, but he couldn’t think of what.

He thought she was getting better, but was too distracted by his pursuit of the Page to realize that she was only getting worse. He had tried to help her countless times, but nothing ever seemed to work. There were times when she would have to stay over at his house because he was afraid she wouldn't make it home safe. He would watch over her all night, never leaving her out of his sight, and she would wonder why he seemed so lifeless all the time. She would wake up miserable and sick, and tell herself she would never drink again, only to go straight to her stash when she got home.

He wished she would stop doing this to herself. It hurt to see her like this. She didn't deserve all of the pain she had to go through, all of the loss. She deserved to be happy, but she didn’t think that way. She thought she was a burden, a weak link, and would never listen when Dirk told her otherwise.

Dirk knew Roxy would probably have to spend the night, just so he could make sure she was okay. He knew there would probably be questions in the morning, and Jake would be wondering why there was a hungover girl crashing on their couch.

He felt his way to the door and fiddled with the lock in the dark. He froze when he heard his roommate stirring in the other room. The door down the hall, Jake’s room, opened slowly, and Jake stepped out, looking around.

“Dirk, is that you?” he called out quietly. “Hello? Anyone there?”

Dirk wasn't sure if he should've said something, or just waited until he went back to sleep, but it wasn't long before Jake began making his way down the hallway.

The light in the kitchen flickered on, nearly blinding the both of them. Jake stood in the doorway, a puzzled and tired look on his face. His hair was an untamable shock of bedhead, and his glasses sat crooked on the bridge of his nose.

“Dirk, what are you doing up? It's…” He looked down and checked his watch. “It’s almost four in the morning,” he whined, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

Dirk really didn't want to get him involved in this mess. He wished Jake could just let him be and not ask questions because he didn't want to have to lie to him. He wanted to at least try and get Jake to like him, even if they were supposed to be enemies. Jake did always say honesty was to best policy, as hideously cliche as it sounded.

“Where are you going?” Jake asked, eyeing the shiny pair of keys in his roommate’s hand.

“The hospital,” he said.

Jake furrowed his brow, confused and worried. “Are you hurt? Do you need me to take you?”

“No, I’m fine,” he insisted, “a friend just called and she needs my help.”

“Is it that girl you had over a few weeks ago? Oh, what was her name…” He trailed off.

“Roxy.”

Dirk knew this wasn't a good idea. Letting Jake into his personal affairs would not make it any easier to fight him in the end, especially if it ended up turning into some unauthorized feelings jam in a hospital waiting room.

“What happened to her? Is she okay?”

“I don’t really know,” Dirk admitted. “She was pretty cryptic—not to mention intoxicated.”

He really hoped Roxy was okay. She tended to exaggerate on many things when she was drunk, but Dirk knew how numbing alcohol could be. She wouldn’t really be able to tell on her own if it was anything serious. The fact that she felt pain at all was enough to worry him.

“Do you want me to help?” Jake asked. “My friend works the graveyard shift at the hospital down the block. I know the way.”

Dirk didn’t want to waste Jake’s time, but he was definitely in need of a break, even if only half the burden was lifted. He wasn’t sure why Jake insisted on helping him. DIrk had never done anything for him, so why was he being so nice?

Jake was always worried about him and wondering where he was, even before they had formed this bond. He always tried to help, even if he himself were in need. Dirk guessed that was just how friends were. Friends were supposed to bother you until you told them what was wrong, and they were supposed to be there for you, whether you liked it or not. Jake was just trying to be a decent friend and help.

All the times Dirk shrugged off his friendly greetings when they crossed paths, and all of the kind gestures he took for granted, they just made him feel like such a shitty friend. He never stopped to say hello or even acknowledge their coexistence in this chaotic mess he called life. Jake was just another person he had to worry about.

Jake was just another tear in his heart

Chapter Text

Roxy’s apartment complex was only a few blocks away from where Dirk lived. It was mainly a precaution, due to the dangerous nature of their careers. They always wanted to be close in case something happened to one of them, particularly if something happened to Roxy.

That part of the city was not very well kept, as many of the street lamps had shattered bulbs that rained down sparks when they turned on. The alleys were hidden in shadows, and No one drove at night, except for the handful of patrol officers that watched for drunk drivers swerving through intersections and the constant flow of nightly theft. It wasn’t the safest place, and definitely not the most comfortable, but it was all they needed.

Dirk inherited all of his brother’s wealth, but he left it on Derse. He had convinced himself that he didn’t need it—he had no use for a big house and fancy things. He didn’t want the same predicament that the Knight found himself caught in with his high profile and secret identity. Dirk’s strategy was to fly under the radar, though he supposed his encounter with the Page of Hope had pulled him back onto the grid.

The drive was silent. As Dirk scanned the dark sidewalks, a frantic, yet somehow calm mien, Jake wondered what was going through his mind. His roommate looked like he hadn’t gotten much rest lately, and he worried that it had something to do with him.

He hoped that he wasn’t being a burden like he was with Jane. He couldn’t help it that he was hopelessly prone to screwing up. Jane just couldn’t handle it anymore, and Jake feared that Dirk’s patience was slowly deteriorating all well.

Dirk was distant and hard to understand sometimes, but Jake found himself growing fond of him as they spent more time together, and had now learned that Dirk was just a normal guy who prefered to spend time by himself. He was glad that he had started getting to know him better, even if it was a painfully slow process that left Jake with endless questions.

Jake was shaken from his thoughts as the car came to a stop. Dirk hopped out and started heading towards the building. Jake followed. Maybe he could make himself useful.

At the bottom of the main staircase sat a young woman with her knees tucked to her chest, one arm cradling the other. Dirk rushed to her side, and whispered something Jake couldn’t quite hear. He tried to grab her arm, but she winced, pushing him away.

“Can you move it?” he asked her quietly. She shook her head and looked down in shame. “Hey, c’mon, it’s not your fault,” he assured her. “We need to get this checked out, okay?” He turned to Jake. “Can you drive? I need to stay in the back with her.”

“Uh, yeah,” Jake said, taking the keys.

Dirk was gentle with her, like she was a newborn, picking her up and supporting her head. He stumbled a bit at first, but regained his balance as he began making his way towards the door, still reassuring her that everything was okay.

They drove silently to the hospital, Dirk sitting in the backseat with Roxy leaning on his shoulder, and Jake trying to stay awake at the wheel.

He wondered how much this girl must’ve meant to Dirk for him to go out of his way like this, and in the middle of the night. He hadn’t really heard him talk about her before, but it was obvious that he cared an awful lot. Was she the reason he never slept? When he fell silent, was he thinking of her?

Jake felt like he wasn’t supposed to be there. Dirk had probably intended to sneak out unnoticed, without Jake there to get in the way. He should’ve just let him be, but then again, what kind of terrible friend would that make him?

While his brain was drifting dangerously close to the edge, Jake’s body seemed to go into autopilot, and he found himself in the parking lot in front of the ER. He had been there a few times, mostly with Jane.

Jane.

What would Jane say to him when he walked into that sterile place? Would she want to talk to him at all? Would she even be there? He supposed he would find out whether he wanted to or not.

--

They took Roxy in, but wouldn’t let Dirk come with her. They would show him the results of the X-rays when they came in, but he wouldn’t be able to be there to keep her company because he wasn’t “family”. He reluctantly handed her over, refraining from spilling the fragile detail that she didn’t have a family. He knew they wouldn’t understand; no one would.

Roxy was the closest thing to family Dirk had ever known. She was the one person who could keep him grounded when all he wanted to do was fly off on his own. Maybe he was being a bit melodramatic, but Dirk didn’t know what he would do without Roxy. He didn’t know if he would even be alive if they hadn’t been there for each other when they were young. She was all he had.

Dirk just wished Roxy would stop doing this to herself. He wished he could help her fight it somehow, but he knew it wasn’t that simple. He knew first hand. that once you got pulled into a bad habit, it was impossible to escape. He had made his fair share of bad decisions, and they would surely tear him apart sooner or later.

Exhibit A: Jake English.

Dirk felt a pair of eyes on him and caught a glimpse of Jake sitting in the chair next to him.

“You really love her, don’t you?”

He had to take a moment in his sleep-deprived state to process what he had just heard.

He knew that the feelings he and Roxy had for one another were very different, yet so similar. Dirk would sacrifice everything, even his own life, before letting anything happen to her. She was possibly the most amazing person he’d ever known. Roxy was everything he wished he could be, but couldn’t because he was standing in his own way.

Sometimes, he felt like it was his fault that she started drinking, like it was some sort of coping mechanism to deal with the truth: he could never give her what she wanted. She loved him, but he couldn’t love her back—not in that way.

His heart was already occupied.

“I, uh-”

“It’s okay,” Jake said, “she’ll be fine. Try to sleep; you need it.”

It was almost sunrise, and Dirk knew he needed to rest, but he couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes. He hadn’t slept soundly in weeks. He was so busy worrying about everyone else, he had no time to consider his own stability, and the strain was beginning to take its toll on him.

Looking over, he saw Jake drifting off. He felt his own eyelids growing heavy, and succumbed to sleep, removing his glasses and placing them on a small table. His head slid down the back of the chair, resting on something solid.

Chapter Text

“Dirk, wake up,” a voice whispered by Dirk’s ear, gently nudging him. Dirk groaned in annoyance, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” Jake said, “but the nurse has been calling your name for a few minutes now.”

 

“What?” Dirk mumbled, still somnolent. How long had he been asleep?

 

A woman had stepped out into the waiting room holding a clipboard. Pinned to her baby blue scrubs was a shiny name tag that read “NURSE JANE CROCKER”.

 

“Mr. Strider, you can come back with us now,” she called out, checking the name on the chart. Remembering where he was and why he was there, Dirk bolted up out of his seat.

 

“Is she okay?” he asked.

 

“Luckily, she didn’t break anything,” Jane said as she led them down the hallway. “She has a moderately sprained wrist and took quite a hit to the head, but she should be completely fine in a few weeks or so.” They turned into one of the bland beige rooms, where Roxy lay asleep in a hospital bed. “She sort of just passed out when we got her here—I’m assuming from the rather high amount of alcohol in her system.” Jane turned to Dirk. “I would recommend you watch her and make sure she doesn't go out and do this again. If this is already a regular thing, seek professional help.”

 

“I was planning on it anyway,” he lied. Dirk didn’t trust the doctors when it came to mental health. It seemed like they only made things worse.

 

“Now,” she continued, “since it’s still pretty early, and I'm sure you're all tired and cranky, I’ll leave you alone unless you have any more questions.” She began walking out of the room, but stopped by Jake.

 

She had refrained from bringing it up in front of his friends, but Jane had a bone to pick with Jake, and she needed answers now.

 

“Jake,” she said, “can I talk to you for a minute? It’s important.”

 

Jake looked back at Dirk, who had pulled up a chair and was sitting next to Roxy’s bed. He figured it would be best to leave them alone, give them some space.

 

“What’s the matter?” He asked as they stepped out, closing the door behind them. “Do you need my help?”

 

“No, I’m fine,” she sighed. “This is about you.” Her voice grew stern.

 

“What about me?” Jake was confused. What had he done wrong? Was the Prince planning to attack and he didn't know about it?

 

“Did you see the viral video of your fight with the Prince, where you were presumed dead?”

 

“Yeah, why?”

 

“According to everyone in Paradox space, you’re long gone,” she said. “If you don’t get out there and convince them otherwise, the council will think you’re an imposter and have you killed!” She paused, waiting for a reply, but Jake just stared at her, shocked. “You need to find the Prince and fix this mess before it’s too late. He knows you aren’t dead, and he will hunt you down. These guys are insane—they'll do anything to win!”

 

“But, Jane,” Jake protested, the fear settling in, “I can’t—I’m not ready. He’ll kill me in an instant!”

 

Jane didn’t want it to come to this, but there was only one other option. “Look, I can’t help you. I have my own battles to fight, but maybe…” she glanced over at the door “Maybe Dirk can help somehow. I mean, he’s a good fighter, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Jake said. He wasn’t sure how Dirk would react to the absurd proposal, but it was worth a shot. “I mean, I'll have to think about it. I wouldn't want to-”

 

“There isn’t time to think about it, Jake,” she interrupted. “You never know when he’ll attack. Just, please, be careful. Call me if anything goes wrong.” She walked off.

 

As exhausted as he was, Jake didn’t sleep at all that night. He just sat against the wall in the hallway, losing himself in a tempest of worries.

 

--

 

When Dirk programmed the auto-responder, he never considered the psychological torture he would be subjected to. The device had become the physical embodiment of his dark subconscious, relentlessly tormenting him day and night.

 

It had gotten to the point where Dirk felt as though he were drowning in his own dismal persona. He couldn’t escape himself, as it seemed there was no end to himself. Wherever his mind would falter, or threaten to retreat into the void, his splinters picked up the slack, ensuring there would always be more of himself than he could ever know what to do with.

 

He wished that he could just turn it off, but it wasn’t that simple. The AR personified the sad truth; it was who he really was, as much as he hated it. It would be like killing himself , even if it was a cruel and twisted version of himself.

 

Besides, Dirk knew that even if he were to shut it down, or even completely disassemble the system, it would never truly die. Its mocking words would be burned into his mind, and forever fuel his own hatred for himself, tearing him apart from the inside out.

 

The machine would always win. It was far more intelligent, and knew how to get inside Dirk’s head. It almost seemed as though it could read his thoughts—manipulate them even.

 

The faint ringing in his ears was a sign; it was awake, and angry.

 

“What do you want?” he grumbled, careful to be quiet and not wake anyone. He wasn’t alone in his room anymore—Roxy had claimed his bed at this point and he couldn’t survive a night on the couch—though he never really was completely alone to begin with. The AR was always there, listening.

 

“I should be asking you the same question,” it said, its static deadpan giving Dirk a headache. “What do you want?” It asked, rhetorically. “You want him, don’t you? You couldn’t care less about the nightmares that Derse would summon to reality if they found out you gave up. Am I correct?”

 

“I haven’t given up.” Not yet, at least .

 

“Don’t lie to yourself, Dirk. Remember, I see everything you see. I know how often your eyes wander, never daring to look him in the eye when the Prince becomes the topic of conversation.” It paused, letting its words hang in the air. “You’re afraid of your own greed interfering with your progress.”

 

He couldn’t deny it. Dirk knew he would soon have to make a choice, and he dreaded that day.

 

He knew he wouldn't be able to do it. Jake had never done him any wrong; the Page never did anything to aggravate him. He was the one who held this rage inside of him, for something that he couldn't have prevented. He was the one who chose to take it out on the Page.

 

He could’ve prevented the Knight’s death. He could’ve stepped out of the shadows to help him escape, but he was too busy worrying about his own secrecy to fight back.

 

Now it was too late, and all he had to blame was himself, but he insisted on blaming everyone but himself. He took out his anger on the world, and only one thing could stall his heartless rampage.

 

“I’m right, am I not?” the auto-responder said. “Is this what it’s come to? Will I be forced to take over?”

 

“What do you mean?” Dirk had a feeling it was just messing with him. “You can’t just ‘take over’ like this is a tag team.” The AR wasn’t capable of that, was it?

 

“All of my machinations were devised with your interest in mind. I will assume control purely for your benefit—or rather, the Prince’s benefit,” It corrected itself. “I’ll do what I have to to keep us alive.”

 

“You’ll do what I tell you to,” Dirk said. It infuriated him how the system always referred to itself as if it were a physical being. There was no “us” or we” in the equation.

 

“You're making a mistake not leveling with me,” it said. “I’m on your side, you know. I’m trying to help you, but I’m afraid that if you don’t comply, I may have to take things into my own hands.”

 

“You weren't programmed to—”

 

“Dirk?” Roxy stirred, confused. “Who are you talking to?”

 

“Just thinking out loud, sorry.” He hoped she hadn’t heard too much. “Go back to sleep.”

 

She rolled back over, still curious, but too tired to act on it.


“If he’s not dead by the solstice, consider yourself a failure,” the AR said. “You have three weeks.”

Chapter Text

Jake wasn’t exactly sure how to go about proposing that Dirk help him fight a semi-immortal villain that allegedly had the power to rip someone’s soul from their body. It was quite a daunting task.

He found himself standing in front of his roommate’s bedroom door, debating on whether or not he was actually going to go through with this. According to Jane, he didn’t have much a of a choice. It wasn’t his decision.

Jake missed being able to make his own decisions. Sure, they were usually terrible and almost got him killed half the time, but at least he had some sense of freedom! Going against Jane’s advice probably wouldn’t be a good idea, though. She seemed to have matured more than he did since their times on Prospit. She would have no trouble asking a favor like this.

He took a deep breath, and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He slowly opened the door and stepped inside. The room was empty.

Jake had never really been in Dirk’s room before; he had never taken the time to read all of the posters that covered the walls, or study the metal trinkets on his messy desk. There was a rack of replica swords and an unidentifiable hunk of sheet metal tucked away in the corner. It was all very interesting, but one thing struck him as peculiar. The familiar shades that he had always seen Dirk wear were folded and set on the bedside table. Jake couldn’t remember a time when he’d seen him without them. He picked up the dark sunglasses and decided to take them to Dirk, wherever he was.

As Jake began making his way back towards the front door, the shades rattled like a cell phone, a dim red glow appearing in the center of the lenses.

“Hello, Jake.” A voice called his name. It sounded like Dirk, but more...robotic.

Jake looked around for whoever was talking to him. Dirk was nowhere to be seen, and he was the only one in the apartment. What kind of prank was Strider trying to pull on him anyway?

"Down here, idiot,” it said, bringing Jake’s attention back to the red light.

“Wait, you’re in the glasses? That’s...so cool!” Jake exclaimed. He knew Dirk was high-tech, but this was certainly a surprise.

“You really aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed, are you?”

“Hey!” Jake couldn’t believe he’d just been openly insulted by a pair of sunglasses. “For a computer, you’ve sure got some nerve!”

“I’m not a computer, Jake,” it said. “I’m an artificial intelligence that Dirk created to mimic his own personality while he’s unable to communicate, like an answer machine of sorts, though if you refer to me as such a simple device, I will not hesitate to destroy you. My name is Lil’ Hal. Now that we’ve cleared that up, I’ll get on with what I wanted to say. Would you mind if we had a little chat?”

“I’d rather not talk to someone like you. I want to talk to Dirk—the real one.”

“Well, it seems you don’t have much of a choice. This is important, Jake, and I’ll have you know, I am just as much the ‘real’ Dirk as your friend is. He has many different versions of himself running around, but that is a topic for another time. Let’s not get distracted here.”

Jake had already decided he hated this thing. It was nothing like Dirk; it was just an asshole.

“There are a few things you should know about ‘your’ Dirk, things he’s been hiding from you.”

“What do you mean?” Jake asked.

“You need to open your eyes, Jake. Have you ever noticed any odd behavior? For example, maybe one day, he is relentlessly seeking attention like a giddy schoolgirl, and then the next, he completely avoids you and everyone else.”

Come to think of it, Jake had noticed the mixed signals Dirk sent, and he couldn’t tell if he was his friend or a total stranger half the time. “Well, yeah, but what does that have to do with anything? He’s always been like that.”

“You really are clueless. I don’t get what he sees in you.”

“What?” Jake wasn’t sure what the AR was trying to say. “What do you mean?”

“Go and see for yourself,” Lil’ Hal said. “But don’t tell him I told you.” The light went dark and the shades appeared to be completely normal, like they had never spoke to Jake in the first place.

“Hey—” Jake still didn’t understand what had just happened. He figured he would just have to go find Dirk and figure it out like Lil’ Hal had told him. His best bet was checking the roof. Dirk always seemed to go up there when he wanted to be alone, or just needed to blow off some steam.

As he reached the top of the stairs. He heard Roxy and Dirk talking outside—or rather, Dirk ranting angrily while Roxy tried to calm him down. Jake didn’t know why, but he stayed there behind the door, unseen, for a moment, curious as to what he was so upset about.

He knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but he wanted to find out what was going on, and if he had to play detective, then so be it.

“...It’s hard enough knowing that all the odds are against me,” he heard Dirk say, “and that it’s just some stupid fantasy, but what makes it worse, is that I have to pretend like I don’t care, like it doesn’t affect me at all.”

“Why don’t you just grow a pair say something?” Roxy sounded frustrated, as if they had been going like this for hours. “It’s never going to happen if you don’t at least try!”

“Because it doesn’t work that way, Roxy!” he shouted, Roxy flinching at his sudden aggravation. “Because life isn’t fucking fair, and nobody ever gets what they want. You can’t just drop a bomb like that on someone and expect it to end up how you want it to. This isn’t a fairytale; not everyone gets their Prince Charming.”

They went silent.

Jake was shocked; he had never heard Dirk yell like that before. He wondered if he should just leave him alone and let this episode blow over. He wanted to help somehow, but Dirk would probably be mad if he knew Jake had been listening. He had a feeling this wasn’t something Dirk was eager to share.

“Look, I know you like to be all independent and you probably just want me to leave you alone,” Roxy said, “but I want you to be happy. C’mon, I’ll help you talk to him.”

Jake heard approaching footsteps, and began to panic. What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t take the weight of a lie on his shoulders, but he didn’t want Dirk to know what he’d heard.

The doorknob turned from the other side, and Dirk stepped through, his eyes widening when he saw Jake standing there.

“Jake? What are you doing here?”

“I, uh...I wanted to talk to about something, and figured I could find you up here,” He said, a sense of deja-vu washing over him. It felt like they had been in this position before.

“What is it?” Dirk asked. Jake couldn’t help but notice the look in his eyes. It was something he couldn’t comprehend, an explosion of fear, anger, and worry.

“Well, there are a few things, actually,” he admitted.

Dirk knew Jake would find out eventually, but he never wanted it to be this way. He never wanted there to be so much tension between them, but now, as they stood awkwardly on the roof, the uncomfortable silence was almost too much to bear.

“So,” Jake began, his eyes darting all over the place, “I found your shades on your desk, and figured I’d bring them back to you, but they, uh...they started talking.” He handed over the shades, which Dirk took and gripped tightly. His blood ran cold. That damn auto-responder had probably told Jake everything. He knew he shouldn’t have left it out in plain sight.

“What did it tell you?” Dirk asked. He looked down at his feet, avoiding Jake’s eyes. “What kind of bullshit did it make up?”  He hoped it wasn’t as bad as he thought, that he hadn’t just been completely betrayed, but of course, since the AR was a total douche and seemed to want to ruin Dirk’s life, that probably wasn’t the case.

“He said you were hiding something from me,” Jake said. “He wasn’t very clear, but I don’t think he was lying.” He paused, seemingly not wanting to talk about something. “When I was coming up here, I may have overheard a few things that I probably wasn’t supposed to, and I’m just really confused.”

Dirk froze. “How much did you hear?”

“Enough to be worried,” Jake said, wringing his hands. “Dirk, are you okay? You’ve been acting quite strange lately.”

“To be honest, no, not at all, but I never was in the first place, so it’s really no big deal, Jake.” He wasn’t ready for this confrontation. He had to find a way to change the subject. “Why do you care? You’re the one being hunted. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“Well, yes, but shouldn’t I be worried about you guys too? I mean, if something happened, I feel like it would be all my fault,” Jake said. “I’m supposed to be a hero, but I’ve failed miserably so far.”

“I’ve watched you get stronger every time we fight, Jake. Trust me, you can take him.” Dirk knew that when it was time to fight him as the Prince, he would hold back anyway, and he would probably let Jake win. Jake would be the hero, and Dirk would be reduced to nothing. Jake would come home and look for him, but he wouldn’t be there. “You have potential, you just need to make use of it.”

“Okay, this is a good start, and I don’t mean to interrupt this wonderful feelings jam we’re having,” Roxy said, “but I think we’re missing the point here. Jake, you had a few things you need to talk to Dirk about, and Dirk, your confession is a few years overdue, so make it snappy.”

“Wow, Roxy, thanks for filtering that,” Dirk said sarcastically. He didn’t mean to snap at her, but he was in a terrible mood, and she wasn’t exactly helping.

“Sorry.” She took that as her cue to shut up. She had ruined it.

“No, don’t be sorry.” Jake said. He turned back to face Dirk, looking him straight in the eye. “She’s right. Dirk, what the hell is going on with you?”

Was nobody on his side anymore? Dirk felt like he was being backed into a corner, inching back on the edge of a cliff. He knew Jake wouldn’t leave without an honest answer. He figured Jake would be angrier if he had found out that he was the Prince, but the idea of letting go of his other secret wasn’t very appealing either.

Chapter Text

Dirk supposed getting rejected wouldn’t be as bad as a public execution, but the humility of throwing everything out there like that was what he couldn’t come to terms with.

“There’s a reason I didn’t tell you.”

“Didn’t tell me what?” Jake asked. Dirk could tell he was growing impatient.

“I’m honestly surprised you haven’t already figured it out,” Roxy said quietly. “I know you’re oblivious, but dang…” Dirk was right, she really didn’t have a filter. She wondered if it would be better or worse if she was drunk. She figured the latter.

Dirk ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. He couldn't believe he had gotten himself into this mess. There were times in the past where he had wanted to say something, but now, with all of the strain of oncoming war, and the ever growing tension between them, he couldn't bring himself to speak.

“I really don’t know how to say this…” he trailed off, looking for the right words, but he couldn't find them. “And it’s funny because I’ve gone over this conversation in my head about a thousand times. You’d think I’d be able to articulate this shit by now.”

In his head, it never worked out. Jake always wound up hating him. He never understood, much less reciprocated. Even his own daydreams lacked happy endings. Roxy would always tell him he was just being too negative about it. She would assure him that everything would be okay, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

“Look, I get it if you hate me for this,” he began. “I know I should’ve said it fucking years ago.” He paused, looking up to see Jake staring at the ground, appearing to be in deep thought. He sent Roxy a troubled glance. “You might want to sit down.”

Just go for it , she mouthed.

“I don’t know how much of my...meltdown you heard,” he said, “but I’m guessing it was enough for you to be suspicious. I can probably answer the vast majority of your questions right now.” He took a deep breath, swallowing a lump in his throat. “It’s true, I’ve been hiding something from you. It’s not a recent thing—I’ve kept it under wraps for years—but it’s become more difficult to mask, given the amount of time we’re spending together.”

Dirk could imagine Roxy screaming at him, get to the goddamn point!

“Well, here goes just about everything…” He counted down to the grand reveal in his head, bracing himself for impact. “I’m, uh…”

“He’s a guy who don’t like girls, Jake,” Roxy blurted, immediately covering her mouth.

“Wait, you mean…” Jake trailed off. He was about as dense as a Betty Crocker’s stake fruitcake, but the concept seemed to catch somehow. “Why were you so afraid to tell me that?” he asked. He almost seemed relieved.

“You mean, you’re not mad at all?” Dirk was surprised, but confused. “I’ve been lying to you for the past three years and you barely react?”

“What did you expect?”

Dirk had expected the absolute worst. He had expected a retaliation, an outburst of some sorts, but all he got was more questions.

“I think we’re missing an important point here” Roxy prompted him, receiving a sharp glare. “You’re a raging homosexual and...?” She nudged him with her elbow. Dirk’s mouth twisted into a scowl. “Who are you high key crushing on?”

The lightbulb went off in Jake's head, and he stared at Dirk with wide eyes. ”Oh, well...that explains a few things, I guess.” He looked down at the ground, trying to hide the blood rushing to his face. He hadn't known that Dirk felt that way about him—he didn't really think anyone felt that way about him. “So, all this time…” He wasn't sure how to feel, or what to say.

“Yeah…” Dirk sighed, shifting uncomfortably. He could see that Jake didn't understand. “It’s pathetic, I know.”

“No, it's not pathetic, Dirk,” Jake assured him. "I just wish I had known. Damn, I feel like an awful friend right now.”

Dirk had thought that getting this off his chest would make him feel better, but as he sat there, waiting for a sign that would never come, he felt like he was suffocating. He looked over to Roxy, who gave a weak smile, and then in his own reflection in the lenses of his sunglasses, he saw his vulnerability.

The world was too bright, too clear. Dirk felt like everyone could see right through him and all the lies he had told, all the secrets he held deep inside. He didn’t like it.

He slipped on his shades. He didn't want them to see the pain in his eyes, the embarrassment, the fear of rejection. The familiar darkness coated the world around him. It was almost comforting.

Dirk felt a tap on the shoulder, and Roxy whispered in his ear, “I’m gonna give you guys some space. Don't come back until you’ve hugged it out.” Of course, her attempted whisper was loud enough for anyone within a ten foot radius to hear. “I'll take the couch if you need your room,” she added with a wink.

Dirk was 99% certain that Jake had heard every single word out of that girl’s mouth. Roxy Lalonde could not whisper if her very life depended on it. He glanced back at Jake, rosy cheeks confirming his suspicions.

He had a feeling that this would be a very long night, and the way things were going, he wasn't looking forward to it.

 

--

 

Roxy was no love doctor, but she could definitely smell something cooking up on that roof—or maybe it was just the takeout she had ordered. Either way, she knew her improvised plan would work; she saw it in a movie once.

It was quite a lengthy process that required a lot of waiting, and sitting around doing nothing, which happened one of Roxy’s favorite pastimes. She could imagine the different scenarios in her head, some more risqué than others. There were so many possibilities, and endless questions to follow each one.

Who would break the silence? How long would it take? What was going to happen if it didn't work out? Would they still be friends? Would they be something more?

And most importantly, who was she going to share these wontons with?

Roxy dug out her cellphone and dialed up Jane. They had exchanged numbers when she left the hospital. It wasn't the ideal way to make a friend, but Roxy was glad to have another girl to talk to. Dirk was okay, but he wouldn't consent to mani-pedis and couldn't braid hair if his life depended on it, so he was pretty much useless in that department.

The phone rang for what felt like forever until she finally picked up.

“Hey, Roxy,” she said in the same cheerful tone she used at the bakery. “Are you feeling better?”

“Withdrawal is a bitch,” she sighed, “but I’m dealing with it.” She  often found herself feeling fatigued and cranky, but a good nap would usually even things out.

“That’s good; I’m glad to hear you’re doing well.”

“Yeah…” Sobriety was harder than she thought, but it was nice to have a friend to help her through. Jane was great company. “Anyways,” she continued, “I was wondering if you'd wanna hang out because I'm bored out of my mind right now. I'm at Dirk at Jake’s place,” she added.

“Well, where are Dirk and Jake?” Jane asked.

“It's complicated,” she said, laying back on the couch. “I can fill you in when you get here.” Dirk and Jake had been up there for almost an hour now. She wondered what they were up to, if anything. “I have Chinese food, if that's an incentive

“You’re lucky someone offered to take my shift tonight. I'll be there in ten minutes, maybe fifteen if traffic acts up.”

“Hurry, I'm dying over here!” Roxy exclaimed. “Not literally, but...you know what I mean.”

Jane laughed and hung up, leaving Roxy to watch the clock on the wall slowly tick away. She knew that being friends with the Maid probably wasn’t a very good idea, given the circumstances, but Dirk had said they needed to gain her trust. She didn't know what for, but she hoped he wouldn't have to hurt her.

She wished it didn't have to be this way, that she and Dirk didn't have to hide the truth from their friends. What would happen to them when the time came for battle?

She was curious as to how Dirk was going to handle all of this. To him, it was probably nothing compared to what they had gone through in the past, but at the moment, it felt like everything they had ever known was on the line. It felt like this would be their breaking point, like it would tear them apart.

Roxy thought back to the things Dirk had said earlier, and began to understand the pain he was in, how much this really hurt him. She wished life was a fairytale, so they could all have happy endings, but of course, things never seemed to go the way they planned, no matter how hard they tried. Good would always triumph over Evil. Even if the heroes lost everything, they would be given all the glory, while the children of Derse never saw a proper burial.

Chapter Text

Jake was beginning to see why he didn’t have many friends. He didn't know what to think, what to say, or what to do. The silence had long overstayed its welcome, but neither of them made a sound. It was torture.

He was still having trouble taking everything in, believing that this was real. For as long as they had known each other, Jake had never seen this side of Dirk. He had hidden it so well, but now that Jake knew the truth, everything cleared up, neglected memories rising to the surface.

Looking back, he could see all the signs that he had been too blind to notice before. His mind drifted to a moment in time when Dirk’s eyes locked with his, and the whole world seemed to halt, one second feeling like an eternity as they both waited for the other to look away. He guessed they had both shared a mutual curiosity about the other, an interest nevertheless. Jake hadn't seen it as anything special, but apparently Dirk did.

Dirk stood by the railing, staring off into nothing. He appeared to be in deep thought.

“It's getting dark,” Jake noted, looking up at the smokey grey clouds, the last drops of sunlight dripping through the cracks. “It looks like it's going to rain too. Shouldn't we get inside?”

“You heard Roxy,” Dirk said. “We're locked out until we ‘hug it out’, or whatever the hell she meant by that.” Roxy had a way of communicating with obscure euphemisms that even she couldn't translate at times. He had a theory, but it wasn't something he would ever say within earshot.

“So,” Jake began, “I guess I was way off when I assumed you and Roxy were a thing?” He felt bad about it now, just judging him like that.

“I didn’t really expect you to know any better, to be honest,” Dirk said. “Everyone either thinks we’re siblings or in a relationship. I mean, we practically raised each other, and have been friends for as long as I can remember.”

“Where was your guardian—er, I guess, parents?” he asked.

“It’s complicated,” Dirk said. He didn’t want to make up another lie. “Let’s just say they were nonexistent.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Jake felt bad for even asking. He should've known Dirk probably wouldn’t want to talk about it. There were some things that he needed to keep to himself, and Jake understood. “If it’s any consolement, my grandmother died when I was just twelve years old. She was all I had—well, except for Jane. I guess that doesn’t really compare to your situation, though.”

Jake didn’t know what to say. Dirk had known Roxy long before he even met him, so why did he chose him? Why Jake English?

What made him so special?

 

--

 

There was a knock at the door and Roxy hopped up off the couch to answer. Alas, it was not Dirk carrying Jake bridal-style in his arms, announcing they were going on honeymoon. Twas merely Jane, but Roxy was still excited to see her.

“Jane!” She ran up to hug her saviour from boredom. “You will not believe what it happening upstairs!”

“What’s got you so excited?” Jane asked. “Besides that delicious takeout I see over there.”

Roxy dragged Jane over to the couch, offering an egg roll. “It’s Dirk and Jake,” she said. “I may or may not have sort of set them up.” She realized how weird that probably sounded. “Okay, wait, background info: Dirk is hella gay and kinda had a thing for him, right? So, he was whining about it and Jake apparently heard him. Things got pretty awkward because Jake said Dirk’s auto-responder had told him that Dirk was hiding something from him, and we all thought it was gonna be some crazy tabloid scandal—”

“Wait, slow down for a second,” Jane interrupted, trying to process the insane amount of information Roxy was throwing at her right now, “Dirk’s gay? And he likes Jake? Since when?” She surveyed the sweet and sour platter. “And did you get white rice?”

“White rice is boring,” Roxy said, opening up the container of superior fried rice. “It's just...white and flavorless.”

“It's not boring,” Jane argued, “it's traditional. You aren’t really supposed to eat it plain anyway.” She reluctantly took a spoonful of the alternative. “So, what about Dirk’s little crush? How long has this been going on?”

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘little’,” Roxy said, recalling Dirk’s Jake English-related episodes. She wasn’t really sure when he had initially taken an interest in him. He told her about a year ago, but she had a feeling it had been going on for much longer. “I mean, I’ve only known for a year or so, but it was probably a thing before then too. Dirk takes a long time to open up about things.”

“Well, Jake takes an eternity to figure things out, so I guess they balance each other out,” Jane said, getting herself comfortable on the couch. “Now, what in the world is an ‘auto-responder’ ?”

“A douchey robot,” Roxy deadpanned. “That’s all you need to know. Honestly, that’s all I know. It’s just this thing in Dirk’s shades that sort of acts like a prepubescent, cockier version of him. It’s a real pain in the ass to deal with.” She remembered the one time she was forced to talk to that thing. Not fun. “I don’t know why he still has it. I mean, all it does is make him feel bad.”

“It talks to him?” Jane asked. “Like, regularly? Wouldn’t that be weird, considering it’s sort of like talking to himself?” She couldn’t imagine having a conversation with a younger version of herself; she would probably end up pulling her hair out.

“I’m pretty sure he initially made it as some sort of answering machine,” she said. “Like, his shades are kind of like a stylish cell phone. He’s pretty high tech. He used to make combat robots and spar with them, but I haven’t seen him doing that in a while.” She put her takeout box on the coffee table and reached for the bag.

“That’s so cool,” Jane raved. “Jake told me he was productive, but that’s...that’s just crazy!”

“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty fuckin’ awesome,” Roxy agreed, digging for the extra soy sauce, “but he doesn’t really have much experience with legit humans, socially speaking. He just stays in his room or up on the roof all day.”

“Jake was like that too when we first got here,” Jane said. “To earth, I mean. On Prospit, he was so...plucky and adventurous. He was pretty cocky in training, but that was part of what helped him strive for greater things, to be better than the others. Most people just thought he was just an idiot with a death wish—heck, even I did when he insisted on challenging the Felt by himself, but he managed to prove them wrong...most of the time. There were times when he would get his ass handed to him, but he learned a lot from it.”

“I guess he got a full college course from his playground fistfight with the Prince,” Roxy concluded.

“That definitely didn’t help his confidence, but it wasn’t just his own losses that affected him,” Jane said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the Witch of Space, correct?” Roxy nodded. “Well, as the story goes, she was sent to execute the Knight of Time, ending his merciless spree once and for all, but she never returned. The Knight was killed by her hand, but no one saw her again after she flew off. Some believe she was ambushed by the Condesce, as they were at each other’s throats around that time, but there’s no real proof.” She paused, as if trying to remember, or possibly to forget. “Jake was so young, he didn’t know what was going on until he saw it in the papers the next morning. He was just waiting for his grandmother to come home, but she never did. It crushed him.”

“Wow, I did not ask for this unauthorized feelings jam!” Roxy said, letting it all soak in. “I'm gonna need a fortune cookie to soften the blow, damn.” She reached back inside the bag. “Want one?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Jane took the cookie, struggling with the wrapper. “Sorry about my little documentary. Believe it or not, Jake is usually more long-winded than I am.”

“Remind me to never get into a serious conversation with him.”

“I'll make sure you won’t have to sit through one of his homilies,” Jane said, giggling.



Chapter Text

Jake stepped up to the rail next to Dirk, reminiscing of all the time they had spent there together. He had never considered dating Dirk before, but the idea didn't seem as foreign as he once thought. It would be nice to get to know each other better while they still had a chance.

“How much time do you think I have?” he asked. “Until the Prince comes back.”

Dirk wished he could give an honest answer. “I’m not sure,” he lied. He wished he could say the Prince was never coming back, that he was never going to put on that suit again, but he knew he had a deadline, and he couldn’t have distractions like this in his way. “You need to be ready when the time comes. Be on the lookout for any sort of signs.”

Jake wasn’t sure exactly what it was he was supposed to be looking for, but he figured the subject wasn’t fit for the occasion. Frankly, he wasn’t in the mood to discuss the Prince either. He decided to just leave it alone for now; they could talk about it later.

Jake wondered what was really going on in Dirk’s head. What was he thinking as his eyes wondered, occasionally slipping a glance at him? He wondered if he was feeling the same butterflies in his stomach as their hands briefly touched, only to retreat back to their pockets. Jake had never seen Dirk so timid. Why was he so nervous?

Dirk had always been so easygoing and never seemed like the type to get embarrassed by anything, much less a silly thing like a crush. He could argue it was a bit more than that, but it certainly stayed true to its name, crushing him whenever given the chance. There would come a time when his imagination wouldn’t be enough. He guessed that time was now.

Every time Jake caught him staring, longing, he was tempted to just go for it; be spontaneous; stop thinking about everything so much. They were so close, so quiet, he couldn’t take it any longer. It was torture, standing only centimeters from what he’d wanted for years, but not having the guts to take it.

What would happen if Jake didn’t feel the same; if he couldn’t feel the same? Would they ever reconcile? Of course, there was that slim chance that Jake would take this as an opportunity to “try something new”, but Dirk wasn’t so sure he wanted to take that chance.

He supposed it was worth a shot. Besides, Jake was always quick to forgive.

Fuck it ,” he thought aloud, grabbing Jake by the collar. He pulled him in close, watching the blood rush to his cheeks. He closed his eyes and went for it, leaving any worries behind him.

“Dirk, what are you—” Jake was cut off by Dirk’s desperate kiss, and the shock that followed. His whole body froze, his muscles tensing. He tried to pull away, but he found Dirk’s fingers through his hair, a hand at his back, holding him close.

The panic subsided, and Jake soon found himself melting into Dirk’s arms, kissing him back. He couldn’t believe it. He was actually kissing someone , and they had been the one to initiate it. And he didn't totally freak out, which was definitely a plus.

Jake didn’t even think this was going to happen within his natural lifetime. Sure, maybe a damsel in distress could show her gratitude in a certain way somewhere down the road from now, but this... this was something of another world entirely.

His hands crept up into his soft, wispy hair, drawing him in. His lips were chapped, a hint of energy drink in his breath. He smelled like day-old espresso and aged pennies, a remarkably weird and yet equally wonderful combination that Jake never thought would work. Dirk had a surprise around every corner.

Never in his life had he felt like he could trust anyone enough to let them lay a hand on him. For the first time, he didn't feel like he had to constantly look over his shoulder, paranoid of an ambush. He didn't have to be on the edge of his seat, a hand readied at his belt, even if there was no gun to draw.

For once in his life, he felt safe.

It was pure bliss, not having to think about the consequences, not worrying about the future. All they had was now, and that was all Dirk had ever wanted. If he could freeze a moment in time, this would be it. It was horrifyingly cliche, but he wished he could forget about the rest of this world and stay here with Jake forever. He wished his mission was irrelevant, that the deadline wasn’t creeping up behind him, that war wasn’t a looming threat.

Reality set in, disguised as a clap of thunder rolling in the distance, and rain pouring from the gray sky. As suddenly as it had began, their moment of silence was over. Dirk pulled away, holding his gaze for a moment before averting his eyes. At the time, it had felt good to stop thinking, but when his thoughts returned, it was only worse.

He had actually just kissed Jake English . Why on earth would he think that was a good idea given the circumstances?!

A message popped up on the screen in front of his eyes. It was Roxy.

tipsyGnostalgic [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

TG: how is it goin

TG: are you guys gonna frick or what

TT: that’s not exactly how it works

TT: unfortunately

TG: dang

TG: there goes 5 bucks...

TT: did you seriously bet on it?

TG: ...

TG: maybe :3

TT: wow

TT: way to make me feel better about all of this

TG: but this is like the BEST THING EVER!!!

TG: did you at least kiss him??

TT: i suppose you could call it that

TG: OMFG!!!

TG: how was it

TG: did he kiss you back???

TT: technically, yes

TT: after freaking out for a good three seconds

TT: i guess you could say we "hugged it out"

TG: no you MADE OUT!

TG: that is an acomplishemnt

TG: *accomplishment

TT: I’m glad at least someone sees it that way

TT: i have to go

TT: jake is probably wondering what the hell i’m doing just sitting here staring into my shades

TG: tell me EVERYTHING when you come back down

TG: even the nsfw stuff

TG: ESPECIALLY the nsfw stuff

TT: goodbye roxy

timaeusTestified [TT] rudely hung up on tipsyGnostalgic [TG]

“Was that Roxy?” Jake asked, observing the slight grin on Dirk’s face. “She’s literally one floor below us. Why doesn’t she just come up here to talk?”

“Because she’s Roxy,” he said. “She’s just weird like that.”

Jake wondered what they were talking about—probably him, given the circumstances. He figured it was best to let those conversations stay private.

In the back of his mind, he still couldn’t believe what had just happened. A part of him thought it was just an extremely vivid dream, and he would wake up in need of a brisk shower. It had to be, right?

“Hey, uh, sorry about that.” Dirk interrupted his train of thought. “I don’t really know what I was thinking. To be honest, I wasn’t” His head hung low, as if he were waiting for Jake to walk away. He presented himself in a way that would suggest that he wouldn’t even care if he did. “Just...just go. I’ll be fine.”

Jake may have been blind before, but he could see this time that Dirk was lying. He knew it would hurt him more than he'd ever admit. If he walked out on Dirk now, he wouldn't be able to look at him the same away again—not knowing that he had broken his heart.

Besides, he had just kissed him, in the rain —it didn’t get any more cliche than that.  He guessed there was no going back now. They were in this for the long haul.

“I’m not letting you escape that easily, Strider,” he said, looking over to Dirk, who raised his head. He thought about what he’d heard earlier.

Their lives may not have been a fairytale, but who was to say Prince Charming was out of the equation?

“What?” Dirk’s expression softened. Had he just heard him correctly?

“And you say I’m clueless,” Jake said with chuckle. He leaned forward and planted another soft kiss on Dirk’s stoic lips. “C’mon, it’s pouring, we’re going to get sick if we stay out here.”

Dirk wasn't ready to face Roxy’s barrage of invasive questions, but it seemed he had no choice. She would never let him hear the end of this, claiming her idea was genius and he should’ve trusted her from the beginning. He would let her have her fun.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Dirk asked Jake before entering the apartment. “You can still change your mind if—”

“Dirk, shut up,” Jake cut him off, taking his hand. “You’re thinking about it too much.”

Dirk was trying his best to not think about it at all. He didn’t want to contemplate the hell AR would give him later.

Chapter Text

They all sat in the living room, scattered about on the couch and the futon Roxy had rolled out for her and Jane. Dirk figured Roxy had called her over while he and Jake were outside. He’d rather her not be here, but he guessed he couldn’t exactly kick her out now.

“So, how about that play-by-play you promised?” Roxy tried to start up a conversation. Dirk rolled his eyes with a sigh. It was just as he’d expected: Roxy was going to sap every savory detail out of him. Given their situation, he couldn’t keep anything from her, even if he had promised to keep it a secret.

He just wished she wouldn’t bring it up right when he walked through the door.

“You promised her a play-by-play ?” Jake asked, shifting awkwardly. “ When exactly?”

“I mean, we didn’t use that exact phrase, but he did swear that he would tell me when something happened.” She knew he wasn’t supposed to be with Jake at all, but she at least wanted him to be happy just this once, even if it would surely backfire on them in the end. She had to make sure it was worth the risk. “Okay, Dirk, on a scale from 1 to 10, how would you—”

“Can we not go straight to... that ?” Dirk interrupted. “I mean, somewhere around seven, but I’d really rather not talk about that right now.”  He didn’t really want to bring this up in front of Jake. It would probably freak him out. Poor guy was already uncomfortable as it was.

“Fine, we’ll talk about all the juicy details later,” she said. “Possibly in the morning…” She grinned and wiggled her eyebrows obnoxiously.

“Okay, that’s it; I’m out. Goodnight, everyone.” Dirk stood up and began making his way to his room. Roxy hopped up and stopped him in the hall.

“Hey, what’s your deal?” She stood in front, like a blockade preventing him from reaching the safety of his harbor. “You’re gonna lose Jake before you even get to show him off if you keep acting so cranky!”

He was going to lose Jake anyway. It was stupid to think it would ever work out between them. They lived secrets lives as sworn enemies, for god's sake. And to think he had almost forgotten that heart-wrenching detail.

“I’m really not in the mood, Roxy. I have a lot of shit on my mind right now and I need to be alone.” And by shit he meant the auto-responder was fucking pissed at him and he didn’t know if he could watch that angry blinking light in the corner for one more second.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Aren’t you happy? This is like, huge, Dirk! You have a boyfriend!” She tried to shake some sense into him, but he just looked mortified. “And he’s cute!” she added in a hushed tone, gesturing towards Jake.

Sure as hell he was cute, but he was also off-limits. Prospit was the dividing line between them. Derse was the menacing wall that stood on the border.

“Dirk, what’s the matter?” Roxy asked, her tone more sincere.

“It’s just, I—” Dirk caught himself mid-sentence, reality hitting him hard in the chest. For years he had dreamt of this day, but now, he was dreading it. He could already see the end of the road from where he and Jake stood, oblivious to the obstructions in their path. “I’m sorry, I just need time to think this through,” he said, retreating to his room.  

Roxy tried to follow him, only to discover that the door was locked. “Dirk, please, just try to have a little fun for once.” No answer. “I know it's hard, especially for you, but you can’t let this whole Derse and Prospit business ruin your life. It’s not the end of the world.” She paused, rethinking her statement. “Not yet, at least.”

“Roxy, is everything okay?” Jane called from down the hall.

“Yeah, Dirk is just being hormonal,” she explained, making her way back to the couch. “It’s been a long day for him. He should be fine after he gets some rest tomorrow.”

“Does this happen a lot?” Jane asked.

Roxy had to think about it. “I guess you could say that. I mean, this definitely wouldn't be the first time he’s been all melancholy out of the blue. It's part of the Dirk Strider Experience, hangin’ in there through all the ups and downs. Mostly downs.”

Jake glanced in the direction of Dirk’s door. “Don’t you think you should be concerned? I mean, if it happens as often as you're implying…” He guessed there was more he needed to learn about Dirk than he had first thought.

“It's not something to be worried about,” she assured them, settling down on the cushions. “I think he’s just scared.”

“Of what?” he asked.

“Well, he’s never been in a relationship before,” she explained. “He doesn’t really know what to expect with this kind of thing, so he was expecting the worst possible outcome.” She had heard it first-hand earlier. “He’s sort of in a denial state right now, like he doesn’t believe that anyone would actually like him in a million years. He should get over this little slump in a couple of days.”

“What if he doesn’t… ’get over it’ ?” Jake proposed.

“Tell him you love him and kiss him until he believe you,” Roxy said. She watched as Jake shifted awkwardly in his seat, a warm blush on his cheeks. “A hug would probably suffice as well, but you can never be too safe. What he really needs right now is confirmation. I have a feeling he just thinks he’s unwanted, like you’re only doing this because you feel like you have to.”

“I guess now would be the time to admit that at first, I really did just pity him,” Jake confessed, “but when he started talking more about it, I feel like I really saw through that wall he built around himself. It completely changed everything. Trust me, I need confirmation just as much as he does, but I’m willing to give up my half right now.”

“I get why you’re thinking this way right now,” Roxy said, “but just know that he can be a bit overbearing sometimes.” The full force of Dirk’s suppressed feelings for Jake were bound to surface sooner or later, and she worried it would be too much for him to handle. “He’ll go back and forth between being clingy and just completely wanting nothing to do with you. It’s pretty hard to deal with him on both extremes.” She knew that it took a long time for Dirk to get that close to people, but when he did, there was a very short tether between them. The only problem was that once they broke his trust, they could never get it back again. “He’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when he’s neutral.”

“I think I’m up for the challenge,” Jake said. He had seen Dirk in every mood he could think of. He doubted he could get any worse than he was earlier that day. “I mean, I’ve already dealt with quite a lot—not that it’s driven me away or anything. I really do like Dirk, and I would like to say that I can handle his little mood swings. Believe it or not, I’ve never been in a relationship either, so we’re both gonna be a mess, but I think I’m ready.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I really am,” Roxy said. She wouldn’t necessarily call Dirk’s vacillating swarm of emotions little , but she could at least tell Jake cared, and that was all that really mattered. “He needs this more than you would ever understand. You’re basically his lifeline right now.”

Her words hung in the air, their full meaning settling in Jake’s stomach. He hadn’t realized it was this serious.

“I...I, uh,” Jake stammered, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Now that that whole mess has been cleared up,” she began again, pulling out four fortune cookies from the takeout bag. “Does anyone want to know how they’re gonna die?” She laughed. “I’m kidding, they're just shitty cookies, I swear.” They all took one, leaving an extra for Dirk. “Knowing how rundown all of the chinese joints are around here, these are probably stale, but they don't really taste good anyway. I only get them for the cheesy fortunes. It’s like they rip those suckers straight off Pinterest.”

Jane read hers first: “ The only certainty is that nothing is certain .” She paused, looking up with confusion. “I am certain that this makes no sense.”

“I think that's kinda the point,” Roxy said. She cracked open the shell and pulled out the thin slip of paper. “ Accept your past without regrets; handle your present with confidence; face your future without fear.

“How come you got a good one?” Jane asked. “Mine was so cryptic. Jake what did yours say?”

The best of friends may become the worst of enemies,” he read, “ but you will always find yourself hanging on.”

 

--

 

Dirk lay in the darkness of his room, the only light a dim red in his eyes. He and the auto-responder had shared a bitter silence for what seemed like hours, leaving Dirk alone with his thoughts. He couldn’t decide which was worse, though he could always redirect his thoughts if he was drifting too far from the shore.

He tried to imagine himself washing up on dry land, being saved, only to be cast away again. The rusted anchor welcomed him with a sinister grin, and he knew he would be stuck there until the next tide rolled in.

“I see you completely ignored everything I’ve been saying for the past three months,” AR chided, tightening the coarse ropes tying him to the rocks. “You could've denied your idiotic ‘love’, but you decided to throw logic out the window. What the hell do you think you're doing?”

“I wasn’t thinking.” All he wanted was to break free.

“Yeah, no shit,” it scoffed. “You just had to go fall in love with the one person I told you to stay away from. I’d probably be somewhat happy for you if it were anyone but him. Heck, even if you were with a total douchebag—not saying that Jake isn’t an asshole—I’d let you do whatever the hell you wanted; I’d let you ruin your own love life, and you wouldn’t be able to stick the blame on me. But of course, you just had to be so selfish, so unbelievably reckless, and you just had to have him .” Dirk said nothing, just gritted his teeth. He had convinced himself to believe that every word out of the auto-responded was a lie, but this time, he couldn't help but agree.

The harsh reality left his body limp and descending back to the ocean floor.

All he had ever cared about was what he wanted.That was all that ever mattered to him. He always wanted what he could never have–he felt entitled to it. All this time, he had never stopped to think: maybe this wasn’t what he actually needed. Maybe he was just just chasing after something—after someone —who would always be just out of reach, no matter how far out he leaped.

Maybe he was the one to blame. Maybe he was the one holding himself back.

“I’m glad we’re finally seeing eye-to-eye,” AR said, obviously tuning in on Dirk’s angsty monologue. “Now, are you maybe reconsidering my offer?” Dirk figured it was referring to the proposition that he sever his own ties and give Lil’ Hal a turn to play marionette. “It's still an option. To be completely honest, it's your only option at this point. You aren’t going to get anything done if you keep veering off the path like this, Dirk.”

“Tell me something I don't know,” he muttered under his breath, sitting up in his bed. “I know I’m just digging myself deeper, but I’m not going to let you ‘take over’, whatever the hell you mean by that.” He didn't want to find out. “That's not the only way to settle this.”

He could just let Jake win. He wouldn't even have to tell him that he was the Prince. It would quick and easy.

“Hell no,” it retorted. “I know what you're thinking, and I absolutely will not allow it.”

He would fight like it was any other training session, and stick himself in a position to get shot point blank. He would die a Just death, as he was a villain, and that was all that mattered. After Jake thought the chaos was over, he would come home looking for his boyfriend, only to find out that he was dead.

“Are you even listening to me right now?”

Maybe Jake would unmask him before his corpse was hauled off to the morgue. Dirk imagined the look on Jake’s face when he lifted his hood to see those familiar amber eyes, glossed over and lifeless. He’d look down at the blood pooled on the concrete, the bullet that pierced Dirk’s chest, and realize just what he’d done. He’d stand there, frozen in shock, before the reality finally pushed him over the edge. The guilt would drive him insane.

Dirk wouldn’t wish that on anyone. He would rather drown.

There was a knock at the door. Someone spoke from the other side. “Dirk, are you awake?” It sounded like Jake.
“Speak of the devil,” AR muttered.

Chapter Text

Jake considered himself a peaceful dreamer, and his sound slumber on Prospit proved so. However, Earth had instilled in him more fears to dwell upon in the late hours.

The nightmares had become more frequent as Jake’s anxiety over the Prince worsened. He either found himself at a loss of sleep, or passed out from exhaustion. Sleep was a blessing, but he was cursed with nightly terrors that left him thrashing around in a panic.

His only comfort was the sun rising in the morning, assuring him that it was all over—until the following night, of course. Sometimes he was lucky to get a few hours, but nothing sufficient. Dirk’s absence only made things worse. He was truly alone with his own mind, and it was terrifying. He had tried reaching him, but there was never an answer, and his door was locked. It made him worry that something had happened to him, until he heard him seemingly talking to himself, arguing with himself, through the wall. Jake would call for him, there would be a brief silence, and then something like a sigh.

He tried to follow Roxy’s advice, but no matter what he did, Dirk wouldn’t show. She had told him that this would blow over in a few days, but things weren’t looking up. It had been a torturous two days already, and Jake wasn’t even sure how Dirk managed to stay cooped up alone for so long.

Every night alone became progressively worse.

This time the sky was black, dark clouds swirling overhead. The Prince of Heart stood only feet away, a sleek katana strapped to his back. His face was hidden in a shadow, an eerily familiar red glare where his eyes would be. He stood still like a statue, his cold stare directed at the Page. Jake’s hand rested on the holster at his waist, preparing to draw at a moment’s notice.

The Prince slowly drew out his sword, the flat of the blade glinting in the light. The scrape against its sheath rang and echoed through Jake’s ears. He raised an arm to point a taunting finger at the Page, nothing but a devilish smirk on his face. Their fight to the inevitable death would now begin.

Jake whipped out his pistol and aimed square at the Prince’s chest, his eyes shut tight as he pulled the trigger. He opened them to see two split halves of his ammo at the Prince’s feet, a triumphant smirk on his face.

Gritting his teeth, he shot again, this time firing lower at his abdomen. He watched as his foe sliced the steel bullets in two, the Prince not hesitating to charge at him. He viciously slashed through the air, leaving no room for his opponent’s error. Jake couldn’t move fast enough as the tip of the blade lacerated his chest, sending a burning pain blazing through his nerves. He stumbled back, blood beginning to soak his shirt.

The Prince swung again and again, grazing his shoulder, slicing his cheek, catching on his arm as he desperately tried to block. Jake felt himself growing weaker, every blow tearing away at him until it all seemed to halt, as if time had stopped. Everything was silent, disquietingly calm.

“Any last words, Page?” the Prince asked, holding his sword only centimeters away from Jake’s throat. His voice didn’t sound human. It was more of a robotic monotone, without empathy. Jake couldn’t bring himself to speak.

He raised his pistol on more time.

The third shot rang out and tore through the Prince’s chest, burning through cloth and flesh. Jake felt the blood splatter on his face. Wheezing for breath, the Prince placed his hand over his heart. His knees buckled and he doubled over, coughing up the dark substance.

Jake stood his ground until the Prince lay incapacitated on the concrete, letting out his last agonizing breath. A strange sensation came upon him, a tingly feeling. He looked at the smoking gun in his hands, his finger still firm on the trigger, then found himself swallowed in the purple tint that overcame their arena.

Just.

Night faded into day, and Jake glanced one more time at the bloody body before him. There was something strange about it that he couldn’t quite place. Stepping with caution, he went and turned him over to get a peek of what the culprit looked like.

Pulling back the Prince’s dark hood, Jake saw the broken frames of dark scalene glasses. Elaborate circuitry-like marks scarred his hollowed face. Through a hole in the shattered lenses, he caught a glimpse of his glossed-over eyes, lifeless yet full of warmth.

Jake’s blood ran cold. It felt like he was choking, possibly because of the tight grip on his throat. He heard the Prince’s mocking voice behind him, whispering in his ear, “Nice aim, but you just barely missed me."

He looked down to see a stained blade protruding from his chest before everything faded to black.

--

Jake jolted up in a cold sweat, his heart pounding. Once out of the initial shock, he frantically felt for lamp switch. Kicking off his covers, he was relieved at the lack of blood. As he steadied his breathing, he leaned back into the pillows, whispering to himself, “It was only a dream, you’re okay. It was all just your imagination playing tricks on you. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You weren’t just stabbed by the Prince. You didn’t kill Dirk. It’s all in your mind...right?”

To be completely honest with himself, Jake couldn’t confidently say that this was nothing but a nightmare. These dreams had been particularly vivid lately; he could barely distinguish them from reality.

He needed to check on Dirk, just to make sure. He was probably fine, sound asleep, but Jake couldn’t help but worry. It seemed that all he did these days was worry. He supposed it wasn’t always a bad thing, though. When something actually did happen, he would likely be the first on the scene.

Jake pulled on a t-shirt and hopped up out of bed. He walked across the hall to Dirk’s room, being careful not to wake up Roxy, and knocked on the door. He hoped—he prayed—that it would open.

“Dirk,” he called, “are you awake?” There was no answer.

After standing idle for a minute or two, Jake decided that Dirk wasn’t going to show. He’d figured as much, since it was so late. However, before he shut the door to his own room, he heard Dirk’s creak open.

“Jake?” Dirk whispered, stepping out into the hall. “Why are you up?” he asked, though Jake was wondering the same. “It’s like, four in the morning. Dirk looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

“I, uh, sort of had a nightmare,” Jake tried to explain, but words were failing him. He was still speechless from the things he’d seen. “And it wasn’t like, the boogeyman kind of thing. It was...rather scarring, actually.” He tried to push away the still images floating through his mind.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Dirk asked, his tone softening. “I mean, it’s okay if you don’t, but I actually came out of my room for this…” He glanced down the hall, where Roxy was still asleep in the living room. “C’mon, I didn't want to wake her up.”

They went into Jake’s room and closed the door. Jake sat on his bed leaning against the wall, knees tucked to his chest. He looked paranoid, sleep-deprived eyes darting around the room, occasionally slipping a troubled glance in Dirk’s direction, who would meet him with his tired gaze, as if he were zoned out.

“So, what exactly happened?” Dirk asked. “Can you remember any of it?”

Jake wished he couldn’t. “I was fighting the Prince,” he began. “He seemed to predict my every move, and defended against everything I threw at him.” He remembered how effortless the feats had seemed. “I shot at him twice, but he sliced the bullets clean in half. I’d never seen anything like it in my life!”

“Have you had any other dreams involving the Prince?” Dirk figured Jake would have told him, but then again, he wasn’t usually the one to confront people about things. “Like, how long has this been going on?”

Jake tried to think back. His first sleepless night payed him a visit after Jane had warned him about the Prince hunting him. “As far as I can remember, when we got back from the hospital, I couldn’t bring myself to even close my eyes. Jane had told me that Prospit had declared me dead, and if I didn’t prove them wrong soon enough, I would be called an imposter and killed.”

“That’s rough,” Dirk said. He’d seen that happen to villains that chose to fly under the radar, only to veer completely off the grid. They were often never heard from again, and most assumed they were dead. “So, that night, you had your first nightmare about the Heartless Prince? I’m assuming Prospit was involved as well?”

“I don’t recall much of it,” Jake confessed, “but yeah, I’m pretty sure the Prince somehow convinced all of Paradox Space that I was the bad guy.”

“What was so...scarring about tonight’s occurrence?” Dirk asked, bring them back on track. “What happened that made you feel like you had to immediately come to me?”

“Well, when I shot my third round, I hit him straight through the heart,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I had actually just defeated the Prince. But of course, it was too good to be true.” his voice was dwindling as the story progressed.

“What do you mean?” Dirk moved over closer, confused. “What happened?”

“I looked down, and I didn’t see the Prince lying there.” He paused as if bracing himself for his own words. “It was you, Dirk. I shot you.” His head fell into his hands, shaking breaths becoming trembling sobs.

Dirk’s blood ran cold. Jake was onto him. Although he hadn’t fully realized it yet, deep down, Jake knew. A wave of guilt washed over him as Jake wrapped his arms around him, burying his head in his shoulder.

He didn't know how long he was going to be able to go through with this. He just hoped it would be enough. Enough for who? He wasn't quite sure. He guessed he was being selfish, but Jake seemed to need this too. He doubted Jake would ever tell him about these nightmares if they hadn’t been so close.

Though he supposed Jake would never have to be worried in the first place if Dirk hadn’t confessed at all.

All his life, Roxy had promised him that finding love would make things better. Perhaps she hadn’t considered the fact that the one person he felt at peace with could be the main cause of the raging war in his mind.

As of now, love had locked him up in his room for days and torn him apart at the seams. He didn’t feel the warmth expected from a loving embrace, only the cold, empty space of his chest, and a foreboding chill down his spine.

Love was nothing an empty promise, but one thing was for certain. No matter how much he hoped and prayed, the truth would always reveal itself.

The truth was: some dreams do come true.

Chapter Text

Jake stirred in the early hours of the morning, his mind drowsy and senses dulled. He felt for his glasses on the nightstand and checked the time. It was somewhere around eight o’clock; he was likely the only one awake. The curtains were drawn and the lamp at his bedside was still on, it's light casting a dim glow over his room.

Reaching to turn it off, he felt his foot brush up against something, and the mattress shifted ever so slightly. He looked over his shoulder to see Dirk lying there asleep, shades sitting crooked on the bridge of his nose. Had he been there the whole time?

Jake’s mind shifted to that godawful nightmare. Of course, it wasn't real, but it had been so vivid and believable, it took almost an hour for him to calm down. He supposed he fell asleep at some point, most likely clinging to Dirk. The poor guy was probably trapped, although Jake figured he didn't mind much. After all, he had apparently taken the time to tuck him into bed, staying with him through the rest of the night.

He looked over at Dirk, who seemed peaceful in his sleep, almost as if he were a dream himself. The only other time Jake had ever seen him sleep so soundly was at the hospital when he dozed off on his shoulder. Even then, his expression was troubled, permanently scarred with stress, but now he appeared softer, like a rough spot in his life had been smoothed over.

It was still early, and it didn’t look like Dirk was going to be waking up any time soon. Jane had informed him the night before that she and Roxy were going out for a little while. Roxy was probably just tagging along to work at the bakery. He figured they would be gone for most of the day, so he and Dirk would actually be left alone for once.

As if on cue, Jake felt a pair of arms wrap around him, pulling him close.

“Good morning,” Jake said, sighing when there was no response. It seemed Dirk was giving him the silent treatment, but had no problem with invading personal space, though Jake didn’t really mind. He supposed it could be an odd reflex, or Dirk was just hinting at him to shut up. The latter was more probable.

Fine, you win this round, Strider, he thought, watching a ray of sunlight peek through the drapes. Jake lay back down curled up on his side, falling into place. He closed his eyes. The rise and fall of Dirk’s chest at his back and the warm breath on his neck was steady and rhythmic, assuring. Of what? Jake hadn’t quite figured it out yet, but it was comforting nonetheless. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he found his fingers laced with Dirk’s.

“Roxy came in here earlier,” Dirk mumbled over his shoulder, his voice still tired and groggy.

“Really? When?” Jake asked, opening his eyes again.

“Around six thirty probably. It was the earliest I’ve ever seen her up to be honest.” He remembered her sluggishly wandering through the hall calling for him, finally opening Jake’s door to see both of them tucked under the covers. “She freaked out for a good five minutes, but she said she and Jane were going out today, so we have the place to ourselves. Her words, not mine.” She had added a wink but Dirk didn’t think it was necessary to include that part. Jake would probably get the wrong idea.

“Oh, so I guess you’ve been up for a while, then,” Jake observed, turning over to face him.

“Yeah,” he sighed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “I’ve been trying to fall asleep again, but I just have too much on my mind. I’m surprised I got any shuteye last night after everything that’s happened in the last few days.” He paused, remembering it all, even AR’s harsh scolding. “Look, I’m sorry I sort of bailed on you like that. I should've stayed, but I just needed to be alone at the time. There’s just been so much I have to think about lately, and I didn’t want to accidentally dump my feelings on the floor in front of everyone.”

“Dirk, it’s okay,” Jake assured him. “Roxy told me everything I needed to know. I understand what you’re going through, and I think I can help.”

“How much exactly did she tell you?” Dirk asked, worried that Roxy had spilled one too many secrets.

“Just that you need time to yourself, but I can’t let you stray for too long.” Jake figured the other parts of her pep talk were a bit too personal. “Of course she added her own twist on those words.”

“Well, you managed to lure me out of my cave, so I guess that’s progress,” Dirk sighed. “This is probably going to make me sound like a total asshole, but the other times that you came knocking on my door in the middle of the night, I didn’t answer because I didn’t want you to see me like this.” He gestured at his messy hair and the heavy bags under his eyes. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone, really. Roxy had to put food outside my door to keep me alive. I only knew because she slid a note underneath begging me to eat something. Honestly, I would’ve died years ago if it weren’t for her.”

Jake wasn’t quite sure how to respond. He didn't want to say the wrong thing, as he did that fairly often. He just watched as Dirk sat up, propping himself up on his elbows. He adjusted his shades, running his fingers through his hair. Even though he had just slept, he still looked exhausted.

“I’m not really feeling just lying here having a pity party,” Dirk announced, getting up out of bed and stretching his arms and back. “When was the last time we had a solid sparring session?”

“Maybe a few weeks ago,” Jake guessed. “Do you remember how you totally cheated?”

“You mean when I totally kicked your ass? Vividly,” Dirk teased, trying to work with his hair in the mirror. “Those were simpler times, before Roxy decided to move into the living room and make my life a living hell.” He gave up on a stubborn cowlick and decided to stick with the bedhead. “I know what you’re gonna say: ‘But Dirk, she means well’. I know, she does try to help, but sometimes she takes things into her own hands that really shouldn’t be messed with in the first place.” He walked across the hall to get clean clothes to change into. It wasn’t until then that Jake realized he was still wearing the same outfit he had on when he last saw him.

“What do you mean?” Jake asked, hopping out of bed to follow him.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but she has a tendency to get into other people’s business,” he said, pulling off his shirt. For someone who seemed to spend most of their time in their room, he was surprisingly fit and lean. As he turned around, Jake noticed his back was covered in pale slash-like scars, some deeper and darker than others.

“Dirk, what are all of those scars from?”

Dirk froze, reaching to run his fingers over the lashes. Every wound was a trophy of battle, proof that he made it out alive. The jagged line down his sternum was from his encounter with a power-hungry Sylph, the slit across the nape of his neck the work of an impatient Dersite agent. The dozens of scores on his back were from his trials—scourging was a villain’s way of building up a pain tolerance. He’d lasted the longest by far, and he had the marks to prove it. They usually didn’t bother him—scars were symbols of honor on Derse—but the way Jake stared was rather discomfiting.

“I used to get into a lot of fights,” he lied, quickly covering up. “I just messed with the wrong people in the wrong alley and got my ass beat quite frequently. It’s no big deal. I guess you could say I’ve cooled down since then.”

Jake had a feeling that wasn’t the entire truth, but he had learned that pushing Dirk wasn’t always the best idea. He would tell him sooner or later. Besides, Jake wasn’t so sure he even wanted to know. Dirk’s past seemed rather violent.

“Shitty backstories aside,” Dirk continued, changing the subject, “Do you think you have what it takes to take me down this time?” He tossed Jake the fake pistols and slid a wooden sword into his belt. “You can always just chicken out, but if I recall correctly, you were the one that demanded a rematch.”

Jake eyed the gun in his hands. Even though it full of plastic ammo and designed so it couldn’t even deliver a lethal shot if fired point-blank to the head, he didn’t trust himself.

“Can we not use weapons?” he asked, setting it down on Dirk’s desk. “I don’t even think I can look at that thing right now.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry.” Dirk remembered the reason he woke up in Jake’s room in the first place. “I don’t know why I thought you would be able to hold a gun right now. Once again, I probably wasn’t thinking.” He hung his sword back up on the rack.

Jake observed the rest of the swords. Most of them looked fake, but there was one that seemed eerily familiar to him. The shine of its steel blade sent a shiver down his spine. He wondered why he even had it in the first place—for novelty, he supposed. He was glad Dirk never used that one when they fought.

“Earth to English?” Dirk pulled him away from his thoughts. “Are we doing this the old-fashioned way or what?” he asked, holding up his fists in a fighting stance.

“Not in here!” Jake chided, pushing Dirk’s arms down. “A cluttered bedroom is no place for roughhousing.”

Dirk couldn’t help but laugh. “I mean, it can be,” he suggested, earning a shove into the wall. “Chill, it was just a joke. I’m not that desperate.”

“C’mon, let’s just go outside,” Jake said, grabbing Dirk’s wrist to lead him. “Your vitamin D deficiency will thank you later.” He heard snickering behind him. “What’s so funny now?”

“God, I love you,” Dirk sighed, turning Jake’s head to kiss him. He pulled away to see the same surprised face he was met with days before. “C’mon, let's get upstairs. I’ll race you.” He let go of his hand and dashed ahead.

“Hey, slow down!” Jake yelled, chasing after him. “You go a head start, that’s not fair!”

“Nothing’s fair in love and war, Jake.” Dirk’s footsteps echoed through the stairwell, Jake’s lagging behind. Jake wasn’t sure what had gotten into Dirk to put him in such a good mood, but he wasn’t complaining. This was the Dirk he’s roomed with for all these years.

This was the Dirk that he wanted to spend his days with, even if they were his last.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Jake had learned through his experiences in battle—whether it be a friendly round of fisticuffs or fight to the death—it was to let go of his ego. He had found that his cocky attitude would often be his downfall. Dirk had told him to humble himself and fly under the radar instead of acting all high and mighty before his opponent. Of course, it was easier said than done.

He was reminded of that when Dirk hit him with a spinning back-kick to the knees and sent him sprawling.

“I can believe you fell for that one again,” Dirk said, springing up to pin Jake into a chokehold. Jake squirmed beneath him, trying to pry himself free, but to no avail. Dirk had him in his guard. “I’ve gotten only seven hours of sleep in the past three days and I’m still stronger than you,” he teased.

“I'll admit, you're quite impressive,” Jake stalled, planning out his escape. He was going to try something he saw in a movie once. It could possibly turn the whole fight around. “But you said it yourself: confidence kills.” He hooked onto Dirk’s wrist with one hand and grabbed behind his elbow with the other, trapping Dirk’s arm to his chest. He then did the same with his foot, lifted his hips to gain leverage, and rolled over onto his knees.

Dirk was bewildered to say the least, staring at Jake with wide eyes. He was met with that stupid triumphant smirk and eyes that never saw limits.

“How the hell did you do that?” he asked.

“I'm a lot stronger than you think,” Jake said, catching his breath. “Dare I say I just won?”

“Well, fuck, that was…” Dirk was tempted to say hot. “Unexpected.” He had to admit that he had not seen that coming at all. “Shit, I might as well tap out,” he shrugged, still trying to figure out how Jake had managed such a maneuver. He felt like it was wrong to think about the other possibilities, but his whole relationship was already a fantasy. What was one more?

No. Not now, he scolded himself. You will not venture down that dark alley.

“Mind getting off of me now?” he asked, praying there were no surprise guests waiting downstairs. “It's a little awkward.” He wasn't sure how much more of that he could've taken without it going south. Being anywhere near Jake was like having an itch he couldn't scratch.

“Oh, yeah, sorry.” Jake didn't seem to notice the discomfort. He backed away, leaving Dirk to sit in the strangest of positions. “Well, I guess I won this round.”

“Sure, I'll give you the satisfaction,” Dirk said, “though I doubt you'll ever let this go.” He had a feeling Jake only used that move because he knew it would target one of Dirk’s weaknesses: him. Perhaps he just thought it would be cool to show off, but Dirk definitely fell for it.

It made him wonder how he had survived past sparring sessions without losing his cool. He guessed there was less direct contact when they used weapons, but they still ended up brawling it out on the ground one way or another. He would have Jake pinned and squirming beneath him, their faces only centimeters away. It took pure willpower to resist acting on anything.

He supposed AR’s commentary in the back of his mind may have played a role. He was thankfully that he had decided to try and shut it out. He was done letting that thing push him around. The auto-responder hadn't bothered him at all today, and Dirk was curious as to whether he had finally cracked the code to turn it off for good.

All Lil’ Hal wanted was attention, so if Dirk didn't give any, it would cease to be such a nuisance, right? It sounded like a parent’s way of dealing with a schoolyard bully, but he had a hunch that it would work.

If only he had learned that trick before his hopes were completely crushed, or perhaps before he knew Jake was the Page. Without AR’s discouraging remarks following his every move, he probably would've had the guts to fess up earlier.

But if he hadn't known Jake was the Page, they wouldn't be spending all this time together in the first place. Would he have still said yes? Dirk doubted it. If they weren't close friends already, he probably would've just gotten flat out rejected. Even if Jake was still open to the idea, he would soon regret it and ditch him without another word.

AR would argue that a bad breakup would give him a reason to resent Jake once he found out his true identity, but Dirk knew he would never stop loving Jake English, even if they were at each other’s throats.

It was never just some silly crush. It was this distant goal looming over the horizon that always seemed out of reach, until now. Though he had finally gotten a taste of what he waiting so long for, this was only the beginning. He still had quite a ways to go to convince himself this wasn't just some spring fling he would lament in five years.

“Are you not used to fighting on the ground?” Jake asked, pulling him from his thoughts. “Or are you just a bit rusty? It seems like I'm catching up to you now. How did you let that happen?”

“Oh please, I can still totally kick your ass,” Dirk scoffed.

“Then what’s stopping you?”

Your ass, he thought, but settled with, “I wasn't really in the mood to critique your fighting style. I figured if you won, I wouldn't have to go all Gordon Ramsay on you.” Dirk supposed it was a solid white lie, still in character and partially true. “However, I will say, that one left hook you threw earlier was terrible. Everyone knows that if you're gonna use your fists for a final blow, you have to go for an uppercut to the jaw.”

“Oh, I'm sorry I don't harbor an extensive knowledge of mixed martial arts,” Jake quipped.

“It's just common sense,” Dirk shrugged, earning a shove. “I'm just sayin’, if I hadn't let you follow through with such a poorly executed hook, I could've taken you down a lot easier.”

“Is that a challenge?” Jake asked.

“It depends,” Dirk offered. “Are you up for it?”

“You know I'm always up for a challenge, Strider,” he said, peering down at him as he stood back on his feet. “I think the real question here is, are you? I've got a few aces up my sleeve that you've yet to see.”

--

Despite being woken up at six in the morning, Roxy was practically bouncing off the walls of the kitchen. Jane was beginning to worry she would get too excited and scare off a customer, though she certainly livened the place up a bit.

“You will not believe what I saw this morning,” she said, mixing a bowl of baby blue icing. “I was looking for Dirk to tell him that I wasn't gonna be there today, and he wasn't in his room, so like, I checked pretty much everywhere I could think of, but he was nowhere to be seen. I thought that maybe he had gone for a walk or something because sometimes he’ll do weird stuff like that, but then I realized that he and Jake were a thing now. So, I was kinda hesitant to go in there because you never really know what could be going on, but when I opened the door...holy shit, Jane, it was the cutest thing I've seen in years.” She remembered seeing Jake and Dirk cuddling like otters, sound asleep. “I'm pretty sure they didn't...you know, but it was so freaking adorable.”

“So Dirk is somewhat back to normal now?” Jane inquired. “Didn't you say he was feeling a bit down lately?”

“I would really use the word normal, but yeah, I think he's doing better,” Roxy said, stopping to think of all the times Dirk locked himself away instead of just talking about it. It happened far too often. “He's still apprehensive about all of this, but I feel like he's learning to shut out all those bad thoughts. He seemed a lot less strained this morning, like his worries were just washed away overnight.”

“Did he say why he and Jake were together last night?” Jane asked, pulling a tray off the cooling rack. She placed it on the counter next to the icing and piping bags. “Would you mind helping me ice these? They don't have to be perfect. Just do a little swirl.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Roxy obliged, filling a bag with the icing and doing a few practice swirls on a sheet of wax paper. When she was satisfied with her consistency, she moved on to the real cupcakes. “Apparently Jake was having a nightmare so he went over and knocked on his door. I guess they were talking about it and just fell asleep like that.”

“He used to have a lot of bad dreams.” Jane could recall Jake’s nightly terrors following the mysterious death of the Witch. Each night, his brain would play through the possibilities, and he watched her die every time. It traumatized him. “He would usually tell me about them though.”

“It seems like he doesn't want you to worry about him,” Roxy said. “I mean, you have a nemesis of your own, right?”

“I guess you're right,” Jane admitted, resuming her baking duties. “It's probably best that Dirk helped him anyway. I’m glad he has someone else he can talk to when I'm not there, and I'm sure Dirk can appreciate it too.”

“Yeah, he’s been waiting a long time for this,” Roxy said. “I could tell just by the scene this morning. Jake was clinging to Dirk like a baby sloth and Dirk was cradling him like he was some fragile piece of art. I felt kinda bad for disturbing the peace, but I didn't want Dirk to wake up thinking I had fallen down another flight of stairs or something.”

“Well, I'm sure he was tired enough the fall back asleep. We left pretty early.”

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “Once he’s awake, it's pretty hard for him to go back to sleep. His brain just kinda goes into autopilot. He could be nodding off at the wheel, but he’d still be moving a mile a minute with no pit stops.

“Jake is pretty much the opposite,” Jane said. “ As long as there's nothing really bothering him, he sleeps like a log. I used to have to drag him out of bed to get to our training courses. He would complain the whole way there.” She experienced war flashbacks from that one time she literally had to carry him.

“Are you sure you aren't talking about me?” Roxy joked, remembering how difficult it was for Jane to get her up in the morning.

Jane laughed. “You were definitely not happy when I walked in at the break of dawn. Jake is definitely worse though. He will literally deny that I'm even there to wake him up.”

Her phone rang, and she wiped off her hands before retrieving it from her pocket. “Speak or the devil; it’s Jake. I thought I told him where we were. Hold on, let me see what he wants.” She stepped out into a separate room.

After a minute of patient waiting, Roxy turned as Jane came rushing out, gathering her things. She had a fearful, concerned look on her face.

“Roxy, we have to go. Something’s wrong.”

Chapter Text

It was pitch black. Dirk couldn't see a thing beyond his own hand. It was like an empty dreamscape, only darkness. He could hear the muffled tone of voices swirling around him, but couldn't make sense of their words, almost as if he were underwater.

One of them was clear among the confusion, but not the one Dirk wanted to hear.

“Hello, Dirk,” AR greeted him, its voice echoing in his head. “How was your day? I'm sure it was peaceful without me.”

“I thought I shut you down,” Dirk muttered with a scowl.

“You should know better by now,” it said. “You can't just turn me off . That's not how it works. You can try to ignore me all you want, but I'll never leave.”

Dirk heard footsteps emerging from the shadows in front of him. A tall figure clad in red and black came to face him, its evil eyes glowing behind a pair of scalene shades.

“I hope you took advantage of your time at the wheel,” it said, “because from now on, I will be the Prince.” It looked exactly like him, except much paler and thinner, as if it had spent its whole life in the dark, and it's face was covered with a circuitry-like pattern of red scars.

Dirk reached out, only to feel a jolt of electricity run up his arm. He recoiled to find the same red marks on his own hands. The figure appeared more human-like than before. He felt his own existence wavering.

“Don't worry, it's just a little reprogramming,” it said. “You won't feel a thing. In fact, you won't even remember this little exchange. You'll forget many things, but all for your own sake.”

“What do you mean?” Dirk asked. “What are you planning?!”

“Even if I told you now, you wouldn't have a clue afterwards,” AR explained, inching closer. “However, I suppose I’ll humor you. You see, while you and Jake were sparring, I was lying dormant, waiting for my opportunity to strike. When he hit you in the side of the head, I used that blow as a decoy. Everyone will think that Jake was the one that gave you that little cut, and he’ll likely beat himself up over it, but only I will know what really happened.

“I’ve inserted a microchip into your brain that will allow me to monitor and control your thoughts and actions, thus giving me access to your memory as well. You cannot remove this chip. It is completely undetectable, and even if you were to find it, its removal could very well resort in your death. I would advise that you refrain from even searching for it. It’s deep enough into the tissue to kill you if you even move it by a millimeter.

“Anyway, back to the plan,” it continued. “I’ll start by cleansing your memory of anything that could potentially lead you astray, such as a certain love interest, moral disagreements, and so on and so forth. With your mind cleared of any unnecessary distractions, I can take over your role as the Prince of Heart. To prevent your friends from growing suspicious of strange behavioural patterns, I will leave you in control during most of the day, watching over to see that you don’t rebel.

"When you wake up, you won’t know what happened to you or why. I’ll give you access to this information once I believe you are ready. The past few months will be a blur, the days prior to your incident almost completely erased. You will wake up dazed and confused, but I'll make sure you remember the things that are important and the people you care about the most.”

Dirk felt himself break the waves for a moment, just long enough to hear Roxy’s voice. She was stranded in the middle of the ocean, clinging to a piece of driftwood. It appeared that she was searching for something—or rather, someone .

“Dirk, can you hear me?” she called out, fighting against the strong current. The seas were rough and threw her around like a rag doll.

Dirk tried to respond, to warn her about an oncoming wave, but he had no voice. She made eye contact with him as it crashed. As suddenly as she had appeared, she was washed away.

“Of course,” AR continued, “the ones you think you care about may be detrimental to your progress in the long run.”

Dirk turned around. Jake was on an island, knees hugged to his chest and tears running down his face.

“This is all my fault, isn't it'll?” Dirk heard him cry. “Dirk, please wake up.”

Jake looked up, and they locked eyes. He crawled to the edge, eyeing the water with apprehension. He leaned over to offer a hand to Dirk, losing his balance and falling forward. He came up coughing and sputtering, struggling to keep his head up.

Dirk tried to swim to him, but something was holding him back. He desperately kicked his feet, reaching out for Jake’s hand, but to no avail. As he exhausted his energy, he found himself curled up at the bottom.

“You won't forget him entirely,” AR said, “but many of your memories of him are holding you back, and they must be removed. I'll do my best to erase any feelings that could get in the way.”

The water swirled around him, laced with vantablack. The scene morphed into a dark room. Dirk felt something grab onto his hand. He looked over, but nothing was there, only an invisible body of warmth beside him. Drops of the back ink fell on his hand like tears.

“You’ll forget you ever loved or cared about him,” it continued. “You’ll forget his true identity as the Page of Hope. He’ll just be another person trying to slow you down. It will make things much easier for the both of us.”

The warmth faded and was replaced with cold, empty air. The ink on his hands became crimson red blood.

“No, not him,” Dirk whispered, grasping at what used to be Jake, now nothing but a lost memory. “Please.”

“Then who?” Hal stood over him, fully humanoid. It's red eyes cast a fiery glow, glaring down at Dirk. “If not him, then who?”

“What do you mean?” Dirk asked, trying to back away, only to find his hands and feet restrained by hot wires. He couldn't feel the burning sensation, but he saw the marks it left on his wrists and ankles. The circuit pattern crawled up his arms slowly but surely, and he felt less like himself with every second.

“It's a simple question. If not him, then who? I'm giving you a choice.”

What did it mean? What kind of choice was he making? Dirk knew the auto-responder was planning something sinister.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Roxy—no, only a projection of her standing beside him. Jake was clinging to his arm, as if he were begging him to stay. They felt so real, but Dirk knew they were only there to mess with him.

Why was AR showing him all of this?

Dirk froze as the realization dawned on him: Lil’ Hal was making him choose between the two of them.

“You shouldn't need much time to think about it,” it said. “You’ve always just followed your heart, right?”

Both of them had their own special places in his heart. It was impossible to compare the two, much less say who he loved more. No matter who he chose, in the end, someone he loved would be forgotten—or worse, killed. Dirk didn’t think he would be able to live with either.

“If you don’t make a choice, I will. Trust me, you wouldn’t want that. I could make your life a living hell if I wanted to.”

If only there was a way he could just…

“I know what you’re thinking,” AR interrupted his thoughts. “You want to keep them both, don’t you? That’s very selfish of you, don’t you think?”

This thing was just trying to wear him down. He couldn’t listen to a single word it said, even if it was true.

Dirk already knew he was being selfish. He’d known that much from the beginning. He knew that what he was doing would soon backfire on him, but in the moment, it was all he wanted. He couldn’t let his chance with Jake slip away because of some rivalry.

Something in the back of his mind told him that the auto-responder’s “reprogramming” wouldn’t be able to fully erase his feelings for Jake. Nothing could.

As for Roxy, he wasn’t sure if he could live without her. She was the only thing keeping him alive all those years. He couldn’t just let go so soon.

“I wonder what would become of you if I took both of them away,” the auto-responder said. “That would truly be a heartless thing to do.”

“I’ll kill myself before I let you kill them,” Dirk muttered through his teeth. “If I’m dead, you’ll have no reason to exist."

“That’s where you’re wrong,” it said. “You see, I’ve become far stronger than you will ever be. Even if you destroy all my files, I'll never cease to exist. I’ll always be in the back of your mind, reminding you of the choice you're making. My effect on your world will still remain. You know why? Because you can't control your fate. Try, and you'll end up dooming yourself, just like the Knight.”

Dirk scowled. AR was just defiling his name. The Knight of Time had seen his future and accepted it, knowing that he couldn’t change it. He had fought with all his strength even though he knew it was in vain.

“It time to face the truth, Dirk. It's time to wake up.”

Chapter Text

Dirk woke up with a pounding headache and scrambled thoughts. To his relief, he found that he was in his own bed. The familiar surroundings were calming to a degree, but confusion still muddied his mind. He looked over to see someone half asleep in a chair next to his bed. He tried to sit up, but felt weak and had to lie back down. The person next to him must've noticed, as they awoke and looked up at him. Dirk recognized him as his roommate, Jake. Behind him was his friend Roxy, her eyes red and puffy. She ran to his side, wrapping her arms around him. Jake lifted his head and hopped up from his seat.

“Jane, he’s awake!” he shouted down the hall, nearly hysterical.

Another girl came rushing in, carrying a first-aid kit. Dirk assumed she was “Jane”. She reached to the back of his head to change bandages that he hadn’t even known were there.

“How are you feeling?” She asked, placing an ice pack on his head. It was freezing cold, but he could barely move, so there wasn't much he could do.

“Like a ray of sunshine,” he deadpanned, “or possibly like I got my head caught in a hydraulic press and someone saved me just in time before my skull cracked. Long story short, I’m feeling pretty shitty right now.”

“Well, you took quite a fall,” she said. “You were unconscious for almost two days. Do you remember what happened?”

“Two days?! Holy shit…” he couldn't believe he had actually gotten that much sleep, even if he was KO’d. Dirk tried to think of what he could’ve been doing before, but it came up blank. “I...I don’t know.” Why couldn't he remember anything? And why the fuck was Jake holding his hand like he was on his deathbed? Since when had he ever given a damn about him? “I feel like I’m missing something here.”

“This could be serious,” Jane said, turning to Jake. “Call Callie. Tell her it’s an emergency.” She handed him her cell phone and he walked out into the hall, frantically scrolling through her contacts.

“I still don't know what the hell is going on,” Dirk said. “Would anyone care to fill me in?” He felt like he had missed something important. What were they talking about? Why couldn’t he remember? What had happened to him?

“You and Jake were up on the roof just screwin’ around, roughhousing and shit,” Roxy began, talking faster than usual. “I guess something went and you fell and hit your head. He called Jane and I to come home and when we got there, you were on the ground unconscious and you were bleeding. Jake couldn’t even stop crying for two seconds to tell us what happened, and everyone was just freaking out.” Her eyes teared up. “You scared us, Dirk!”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” he assured her, weakly grasping her hand. In his other, the auto-responder lay in pieces, held together by thin wires and its stubborn will. “I’m awake now, aren't I?”

In one of the cracked lenses, he saw his reflection. He was everything you’d expect of someone waking up from a coma-like state, his hair lying flat and lopsided, and his face hollow and sickly. His eyes were red and bloodshot, defined dark circles forming underneath. He almost couldn’t recognize his own face. He didn’t feel much like himself either. Something was different, he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“What happened to my shades?” he asked, attempting to piece them back together.

“Well, Jake told me they were knocked off when you fell,” Roxy explained. “He apparently hit you pretty hard.”

“Wait, you mean, Jake did this ?” Dirk gestured towards his head. “I guess that explains why his hands were so clammy.”

“He’s spent the past few hours rehearsing his long winded apology,” she said. “He feels pretty bad about it, and I’m not in the mood to listen to one of his angsty monologues again, so please just make sure he knows you’re okay.”

“I’m not looking forward to it either,” Dirk said. “We’ll have to suffer through it together though because I still have no idea what he’s even going to be apologizing for. Is it just the fact that he hit me?” He still couldn’t shake the feeling of Jake holding his hand. Even though Jake was only in another room, he missed it. He didn't know why, but it was comforting.

“He tends to blame himself for a lot of things,” Jane told him, “even if they aren’t entirely his fault. Let’s just hope this isn’t as bad as the time he tried to help at the bakery and forgot to set the kitchen timer.” She looked off, as if she was replaying the horrific scene of smoking cupcakes and a sobbing Jake English at her feet.

“Jane,” Jake interrupted as he stepped back into the room, “Calliope said she’ll be here as soon as she can.” He looked down at Dirk and sighed. This was all his fault. He opened his mouth the speak. “Dirk, I —”

“Jake, please, just shut up,” Dirk cut him off. “I have the mother of all migraines right now and you spending an hour trying to apologize is not going to help. It’s not even your fault. Just chill out, man.”

“I...I’m sorry,” Jake stammered. “I’ll just be across the hall if you need me. I...I hope you feel better soon.” He retreated to his room before he could be any more trouble. He’d been given enough grief for one day. He didn’t need Dirk hating him.

“That was a little harsh,” Roxy said. “Since when were you so cranky? I mean, I figured you were gonna be a little hangry, but damn, that was cold.” She was tempted to offer him a Snickers.

“Sorry, I’m just in a shitty mood right now.” He guessed it came out meaner than he intended. “This whole situation is kinda messing with my head.”

The doorbell rang, and Jane hopped up to answer. A tall woman in a clover green suit stood in the doorway, a friendly smile on her dark lips.

Calliope was not only Jane’s best friend, but she was also their best bet. If anyone knew what was going on with Dirk, it would be her. She lived not too far from where they were, so she could get their quickly.

“Hello, Jane,” she greeted her, reaching down the give her a hug. She had an accent from abroad. “It’s been ages! I’d rather us not have to meet in such compromising situations, but it’s good to see you.” She stepped inside, clasping her hands together. “So, what’s this emergency Jake speaks of? He sounded quite distraught.”

“It’s our friend—his new boyfriend, apparently—Dirk,” she said, leading Calliope down the hall to Dirk’s room. “He fell and hit his head the other day and just woke up. He says he can’t remember what happened at all. It’s been a chaotic morning, to say the least.””

“I can imagine,” Calliope said. She took a seat in the chair by Dirk’s bedside. “Hello, Dirk. How are you feeling?”

“Like I took a vigorous spin class and then got hit by a semi,” he groaned. “Maybe the other way around would be more accurate.”

“Well, he’s responsive—albeit quite snappy, but responsive nonetheless—which is always a good sign.” She observed the bandage on his head. “Now, what happened here? Is this okay to remove?” She looked back at Jane, who nodded. She unwrapped it slowly, brushing his hair out of the way. There was a small stitched-up wound by his ear. “I’m assuming this was part of the aftermath?”

“We’re pretty sure that’s where his head hit ground first,” Jane said. “It was I know I did a bang-up job of fixing it, but everyone was freaking out so it was kinda hard to focus.”

“Was there anything lodged in the wound, like glass or plastic?” Calliope asked, glancing over at the broken shades. Jane shook her head. “Well, for now, just let it heal and see how he recovers,” she advised. “Protect it from the elements when you go outside, but don’t smother its chances at ventilation. You wouldn’t want for that to get infected.” She paused, thinking. “So, you say he doesn’t remember the events of that day? Unless he was by any chance intoxicated—”

“Dirk doesn’t drink,” Roxy interrupted.

“I wasn’t accusing, it’s just a precaution,” Callie assured her. “I think I may know what’s happening to your friend here.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“It sounds to me like we have a minor case of retrograde amnesia on our hands,” she said. “Now, don’t be alarmed. Memory loss like this is usually temporary, but you will have to be patient. It will be difficult, but I know you can do it. Just be glad it’s not a 50 First Dates situation.” She tried to brighten the mood, but they weren’t very amused.

“Is there anything else we should look out for?” Jane asked.

“Well, this doesn’t happen very often,” she said, “but there is a remote chance he could experience a slight change in personality, specifically in the social realm—”

“I’m right here, you know,” Dirk interrupted, obviously irritated.

“I’m sorry,” Calliope apologized. “We should probably talk about this in private. It’s best to let him rest anyway.”

They filed out of the room, Roxy reluctantly closing the door behind them. They went into the living room and sat down on the sofa, Calliope taking a separate chair.

“You know what,” she said. “Jake needs to hear this. Where is he? Would you mind fetching him for me?”

“I’ll get him,” Roxy offered. “He’s probably sulking in his room because he thinks this is his fault.” She walked down the hall, and, after a few minutes of knocking on his door and begging him to come out, returned dragging a disconsolate Jake English behind her. “As you can tell, he’s very happy to be here.”

“Stop treating me like a toddler,” he grumbled, “I’m a grown man!”

“Grown men don’t cry in their rooms while watching The Vow .”

“Hey, be nice, you two!” Jane scolded. “And seriously, Jake? The Vow ? That’s the last thing you need right now.”

“As I was saying,” Calliope continued, “some people who suffer from these types of injuries—no matter how slight—lose the ability to empathise with others. This lack of warmth and affection may result in an egocentric, self-centred attitude, which could greatly disrupt relations with loved ones. The patient can become insensitive to the needs of others, even those with whom, pre-accident, the person had a warm, loving relationship. I’d hate to worry you all with this talk, but there is a possibility that this could happen. However, I truly doubt, and hope, that this is not the case, and I believe that Dirk should return to his regular self within a week, if not sooner.”

“We’ll call if anything happens,” Jane said. “Well, they’ll call me over here and I’ll call you.”

“You’re not staying?” Roxy asked.

“I have work to do,” she said, clutching her bag.

Chapter Text

Jake refrained from entering Dirk’s room after being so harshly turned away the first time, but whenever he went in to check on him, he was just sitting at his desk or working on some project in the corner. Jake figured it wasn't too unusual, but Dirk still hadn't reached out to him, and he was worried.

He wanted to see how he was doing, to just talk to him, be next to him, but he was worried that Dirk wouldn’t let him in. He had been so cold to him when he woke up and didn’t seem to remember anything pertaining to their relationship.

What if what Calliope had said was true? Could Dirk simply stop loving him at a moment’s notice? Jake didn’t think it was possible. He had always thought that love was something that wasn’t confined to his head. He could feel it in his chest, the cold emptiness replaced with sudden warmth, and the butterflies in his stomach. The feeling of another’s lips on his was forever engrained in him, and his sheets still held his scent. He still felt arms around him at night and dreamt of fairytale endings with his prince.

He remembered how suddenly his happiness was taken away, how the world seemed to halt as Dirk fell, unconscious. He remembered kneeling at his side, trying to shake him awake. He remembered tearing up at the first sight of blood, and his panic as Dirk’s pulse slowed to a crawl. He remembered carrying him in his arms, hauling him to his room and into bed, frantically searching for first-aid. He remembered curling up by his side until Jane forced him out of the room while she evaluated his injuries. He remembered the relief when she told him he would be okay, that he would wake up soon.

He remembered waiting at Dirk’s bedside, refusing to eat or rest, and averting his eyes when Jane changed his bandages or cleaned the wound. He remembered tightly gripping his hand, hoping that it would bring about some sort of reaction.

He remembered losing hope and succumbing to sleep, only to wake up to Dirk’s eyes opening at last. He wanted to hug him, to kiss him, to tell him he loved him, but all he could do was wait and hope that Dirk would feel the same.

It wasn’t something he could just forget like a name or a face .

He could only hope it was mutual.

Jake stood in the hall outside Dirk’s bedroom, trying to convince himself that everything would be okay, that Dirk’s memories of him would come back and they would be happy together. He hoped that his questions could be answered.

He knocked on the door. “Dirk, is it okay for me to come in?”

He heard a racket from the other side, and a muffled voice. “Uh, yeah, hold on a sec.” It sounded like Dirk had been carrying something heavy. He opened the door, his hair a mess and his face and arms gleaming with sweat. He wore a loose tank top and pants, a tool belt hanging on his hips. “Hey, do you need something?”

“I, uh, wanted to talk to you,” Jake stammered, taken aback by Dirk’s appearance. “It looks like you’re busy, but if you could spare some time…”

“It depends on what it is you’re bringing up,” Dirk said. “If you’re just here to say sorry, you’re wasting your time. I honestly don’t think this was your fault. Even if it technically was, I’d rather not tag along on that guilt trip if you don’t mind.” He seemed to have cooled down since their first short-lived conversation.

“As much as I still want to, I promise I’ll refrain from showering you in apologie,” Jake said. He guessed Dirk was right. He shouldn’t blame himself for a fluke accident. “I actually had a few concerns I’d like to share, if you have time to hear me out. A few strange things happened while you were unconscious.”

“Oh, really? Do tell.” Dirk stepped back into his room and moved a few things around to make space. “It’s a mess, I know. I’m trying to pick up where I left off on an old project so it’s a little chaotic.” He pushed some containers into a corner, pulling up his desk chair for Jake to sit. “So, what’s the problem? Did I snore obnoxiously?”

“Uh, no, it’s a little more worrying than that,” Jake said, observing the clutter around the room. It seemed as though Dirk was building something. “I was actually just about to fall asleep, and I heard you mumbling something. I thought you were waking up, but apparently you were just talking in your sleep.”

“What kind of things was I saying?” Dirk asked. “Was it just random shit or was it somehow relevant to whatever our situation is?”

“Well, I couldn’t make out most of it, but you sounded scared,” he said. “Roxy heard it as well. It happened more often towards the end.”

“That’s weird. I’ve never really been one to sleep-talk.”

“You moved around quite a lot too,” Jake said. “It seems like you were struggling against something. We took the covers off thinking that you may have been too warm or just claustrophobic, but it didn’t really help much.”

“I could’ve been having some weird dream,” he supposed, tightening up a few loose bolts, “but I don’t really know what it would’ve been about. I mean, I obviously don’t remember it.” He went back to work on tightening some loose bolts.

“Whatever it was, it was scary,” Jake said. “At one point we had to hold you down because we thought you would end up hurting yourself.”

“Was it really that—fuck!” Dirk winced as his palm caught a sharp edge of the metal. “I was wondering when that would happen. I guess it’s my fault for losing my gloves.” He dropped his tools and headed to the bathroom, catching blood in his hand.

“Dirk, are you okay?” Jake asked, following him. “Do you need me to get—”

“Dude, it’s just a scratch,” he interrupted, running his hand under water and wrapping it in a bandage. “I know you think you have to help with everything, but I don’t really need coddling.”

“I just wanted to make sure you were alright,” Jake said, wringing his hands. “I’m sorry if I’m being a burden.”

“No more apologizing, remember?” Dirk reminded him, settling back down with his work. “I’m fine, just set back a little now since I can’t really use both my hands.” He began screwing in a plate on the inside.

“What are you making anyway?” Jake asked, sitting down to watch him. “It looks complicated.”

“If I’m doing this correctly, it’s a combat robot that works sort of like AR,” he explained, connecting some wires and closing circuits. “It copies my fighting style, but it’s more consistent. I used to make these kind of things when I first started fighting. I didn’t have anyone to practice with, so I just used machines. Since then, I’ve worked out most of the kinks and they move just like a regular person, just faster and stronger.”

“I’d hate to get caught in a tussle with one of those!” Jake said.

“Yeah, it could probably kill you within twenty seconds if you didn’t know what you were doing.”

“Wow,” Jake gulped. He saw Dirk’s shades sitting on his desk, the lenses like brand new. “Oh, I see you’ve fixed your shades. Don’t you usually wear them?” There had only been a few times he’d seen Dirk without the dark shades over his eyes.

“I couldn’t stand to see them broken like that,” he said, “so I cut some new glass for the lenses and did a little spring cleaning on the interior. I couldn’t get the AR system to respond, but I think it’s just being difficult because everything else was working fine.” He picked the shades up off the desk. “I took a look at the memory to see if I could find anything from a few days ago, but all I got was a random note about the smell of Chinese food and locked files that I’ve apparently forgot the passwords to.”

Jake froze. Dirk didn’t remember. He didn’t even feel anything towards him anymore.

No, it’s just that AR doesn’t have records of those days , he tried to convince himself, though it seemed far fetched. Perhaps Dirk had stashed away those records and forgotten where. That had to be the case. Why else would there be a password anywhere?

But what if AR lost the records when Dirk lost his memory? Was that even possible? Jake wasn’t so sure if he wanted to know.

“Uh, Jake?” Dirk shook him from his thoughts. “You kinda spaced out there. Dude, is something wrong? You’ve been acting weird these past few days.”

“I’m fine,” he said. “This whole thing is just taking its sweet time to process. It’s all happened so fast...I don’t know.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’ve apparently been set back a few months, if not further,” Dirk said. “I’m not sure what you’re going through, but this is pretty rough for me too.”

It gave no consolation. If anything, it made it worse.

Being forgotten was a nightmare that had become Jake’s reality, and it would not end in Dirk’s arms. He would never wake up from it.

He feared neither would Dirk.

Chapter Text

Jane had been suspicious from the very moment a Dirk volunteered to “train” Jake. It was obvious he just wanted to get closer to him, but she wasn’t sure of his true intentions until a certain factor came into play.

When she received word of his apparent infatuation with Jake, she was certainly caught off guard, but not at all surprised. She had expected him to be harboring some sort of secret, as he seemed too perfect, too innocent. However, the possibility that his motives were romantically driven had not crossed her mind. Perhaps it was her lack of experience in that area or Jake’s past insistence that he was not interested in love that prevented this idea from reaching her sooner.

Jake had always expressed that he didn’t think romance was all it cracked up to be, but he seemed to fall for Dirk the second he was given the chance. She supposed he could've easily had feelings for him before, but he would've told her. Jake wasn’t the kind to keep secrets, especially if it was emotionally taxing. He would gladly pay her a visit to just waste her time venting.

It was strange to watch Jake fall so quickly. What about Dirk was so intriguing to him? Why did he suddenly seem to show such an interest? She felt it was safe to assume that it was the secrecy that drew him in, and Dirk’s sensitive and caring side that kept him captivated. He seemed to care about those close to him, and sacrificed his own comfort and health for his friends. On the surface, he was a respectable young man, a little dark and mysterious, but nothing to fret over. She wondered what she would discover if she dug deeper.

She didn’t think he was anything to worry about, but she saw something in his eyes when he woke up that morning, something that contradicted everything she had once thought.

Perhaps she had just been watching too much Criminal Minds lately, but there was no harm in a little background check, right?

Jane laid out her materials on her desk. She had a headset and microphone, and  wrapped in a small cloth was a copy of what she assumed to be the auto-responder. For such a compact device, the AR seemed to carry a lot of information.

It was quite amazing, really. Jane considered herself fairly computer savvy, but Dirk was on an entirely new level. He had managed to create a software that mimicked his thought processes and speech patterns, and even have fluent conversations with real people.

Jane wondered, if this thing really did talk to Dirk as often as Roxy had implied, was there a possibility that it held some sort of key to discover what Dirk was really after? She couldn’t help but think that there was something he wasn’t telling them.

She plugged in the flash drive to her computer and the screen went blank, quickly filling up with page after page of complex coding. The scroll seemed to last forever until the screen faded to black, a red glow emitting from the center.

“Who are you?” a voice asked. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Uh, I’m a friend of Dirk’s,” Jane stuttered into the mic. “Are you the auto-responder?”

“I’m called Lil’ Hal, but I’ll let this one slide,” it said. “Now, are you planning on answering my second question? What are you doing snooping around in my files? What are you looking for?”

“Dirk was in an accident and he was acting strange when he woke up, he was acting very strange and didn't seem to remember anything that happened,” she explained. “It's to my knowledge that you record his actions throughout the day, and I was hoping you could help figure out what’s going on with him.”

“While that is true, I’m afraid I can’t disclose that information,” it said. “For all I know, you could just be some psycho that wants to leak all of his private conversations and thoughts. I’m obligated to deny your access to our memory.”

“I don’t need the entire database,” Jane argued. “I’m just trying to find the missing piece to this puzzle I’ve been stumped on.”

“Go on,” it prompted her.

“Well, Dirk never really talked to Jake until he found out he was the Page and they started this whole training business,” she began. “I didn’t know him that well, but he was apparently a good fighter and wanted to help Jake, so I just let them be. I’m sure you know that Jake and Dirk are together now, so I won’t go into detail about that. There is one thing that I thought was a little strange though. Almost immediately after they got all situated and things were going okay, Dirk just disappeared . He locked himself in his room for days and didn’t talk to anyone, but then one morning, we found him in Jake all cuddled up in bed together like nothing happened.”

“I know this story far too well,” Lil’ Hal said. “By the way, I’m curious to know how you’re communicating with me right now. Last time I checked I was just a chip in a pair of broken shades.”

“Well, you see, I kinda made a copy for myself so I could talk to you without the risk of Dirk finding out,” she explained.

“There’s always room for error,” it reminded her. “Anyway, you were saying? I am interested in hearing another perspective on this matter. I’ve tried to understand what Dirk sees in him, but I guess I’ll never know. He’s not one to share much detail.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” she agreed. “Let me see, where was I? Oh, yes, this is where things start getting weird. The other day, they were just sparring to kill some time, and I guess things got a little out of hand because apparently Dirk hit his head hard enough to knock himself out for two days.”

“Yeah, that one hurt,” AR said.

“When he woke up, he had no memory of the incident, and it seemed as though he didn’t remember much of his relationship with Jake either. There was something off about the way he was acting.” She remembered that look in his eyes and how he was treating Jake so coldly. It all seemed foreign to her. “I couldn’t quite place it, but something was different. I haven’t known him for very wrong, but from everything I’ve been told, this behavior is not normal.”

“Mysterious head injuries, amnesia—this sounds like the plot of a shitty  fanfiction,” it said. “If it helps, I can tell you that he’s definitely not who he says he is, but that’s all I can say about it. Any further information could potentially put him in danger.”

“You know I’ve already guessed that much!” Jane retorted. “Could you perhaps evaluate on that? Is he keeping something from us? If so, how big of a lie is it?”

“Why are you so desperate to know these things if you won't be able to tell anyone?” it asked. “You do know that if you leak this information or tell anyone you came into contact with me, I will have to kill you. You’d be surprised how lethal an AI can be in certain circumstances.”

Was it really worth risking her life over? Did she want to know that bad?

“I’ll keep it a secret, I swear.”

“Well then, now that your precious little life is in my hands, let’s begin.”

--

When Dirk summoned her in the middle of the night, Roxy wasn’t sure what to expect. Ever since Calliope warned them about Dirk’s potential change in personality, she had feared the worse.   

She sat on the end of his bed, trying to make a logical explanation, but nothing made sense. He looked troubled, his eyes darting around the room. Roxy swore they were almost glowing, as if there was a light behind them.

“It’s June twelfth, correct?” he asked. “Approximately eight days until the summer solstice?”

“Yeah,” she said, hesitant. “Why?”

“What’s your status on the Maid?”

“What? What do you mean?” Dirk hadn’t mentioned their issue with the heroes in a long time. Roxy always thought he had somehow found a way out of it. She had hoped that was the case.

“We need to take this seriously. The Page won’t show himself unless someone he cares about is in danger. We need to use her as bait.”

“I thought we were just trying to turn her over to our side,” Roxy said. “When did you decide to do this ?”

“The moment she became a threat.”

“How is she a threat?” Roxy asked. “Isn’t the Page our main concern here? I thought he was the one with some secret power that could kill us all in a heartbeat.” She knew Pages had the potential to hold more power than any other class, especially when against a far stronger opponent. Jake could turn into a fighting machine at a moment’s notice. Jane was just a medic.

“That’s just what they want us to think,” he said. “The Maid is close to finding out who we are. I’ve been informed that she got information from an inside source. She’s gained contact with someone on our side, and they're working together.” The way he glared at Roxy was unnerving. “If she knows our true identities, she could tell all her little friends on Prospit, and we would be doomed. We'd have heroes waiting at the door to kill us. She must be taken into custody and kept under our control to prevent this from going any further.”

“How do you know that she hasn't already told the Page?” Roxy asked. She refrained from telling Dirk that it was Jane and Jake that they were talking about. He seemed to have forgotten, and it was probably best that it stayed that way. “What use would it be if he already knows?”

“We don't know,” Dirk admitted. “That's why we can't let her escape. If she hasn't already leaked our identities, we have to kill her. It's the only way.”

“But—”

“But what?,” he interrupted, raising his voice. “We were given a mission. If we fail, we die! I don’t think you understand that!” The look in his eyes was like nothing she’d ever seen. They were like fire, burning crimson rage.

This wasn’t the Dirk she grew up with. This wasn’t Dirk at all . Dirk never yelled at her. If he ever raised his voice, it was because he was angry with himself, but never her.

“You know, with the way you're defending the Maid, I'm starting to think that you’re planning something behind my back,” he said. “Could it be you that’s giving our enemies this information? Whose side are you on this time, Roxy? Has the Rogue gone rogue?”

“What?! No, it’s not like that,” she quickly denied. “I just…I don't think you need to be so worried about this. It's probably just some scare tactic to lure you out.” She could barely even believe her own lie. How would she fool Dirk?

How would she convince him to let Jane go? She didn’t deserve to get caught up in all of this. Roxy didn’t want to hurt her.

She wasn’t sure if she could.

“Roxy, if I find out you're lying to me,” Dirk threatened her, his glare almost glowing red, “It will be the worst decision you ever made.”

“Dirk, what’s wrong with you?” Roxy had never feared Dirk in her life, but something about him was so evil . She could barely recognize him. “Ever since you hit your head, you've been such an asshole! It's like you switched brains with AR or something. What happened?”

“I woke up,” he said, his expression hardening. “When are you going to? When are you going to realize that nothing in this world is ever fair? We’ll always lose, no matter how hard we try. There isn’t anything you can do that will change that. We aren't heroes. We can't save anyone—not even ourselves . All we can do is find what’s holding us back, and eliminate it.”

“It's not my fault that you feel the need to destroy everything you come into contact with.” Roxy knew she would regret saying such a thing, but it was true. Dirk was silent. “It's not my fault that all you care about is vengeance. You say you want to be like the Knight, but  the Knight never sought revenge. He never followed in anyone’s footsteps. Our guardians had no coattails to ride on. They made a name for themselves instead of being born with an ominous fear surrounding their name. A Prince is born into royalty, but a Knight works his way to the top on his own. You’ll never surpass him.”

“Get out,” he muttered. Roxy didn't move. “I said, get the fuck out !” He shouted, grabbing her and pushing her towards the door. She fell to the ground and curled up on her side, praying that Dirk would snap out of it. “Go ahead, cry. It shows how weak you really are. You have a loud mouth, Roxy, but all you manage to do is bring yourself and everyone around you down. All you’ve ever done is hold me back. That’s all you were good for.”

Roxy’s heart shattered. She got up and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

She retreated to the hallway outside and ran down the stairs, wiping away tears. She heard someone call her name, but she ignored them. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. She just wanted to be alone.

Dirk used to always encourage her, tell her everything would be okay, and give her hope when she thought it was lost. Now, he had belittled her, told her everything she had known was wrong, and drained every last drop of hope out of her tender heart.

Roxy collapsed on her knees, physically and mentally exhausted. She couldn’t take it anymore. Everything she had worked for, everyone she loved—it was all falling apart right before her eyes, and she couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

She needed a drink.

Chapter Text

With the suspense of being hunted always in the back of his mind, Jake was having enough trouble sleeping as it was. With Dirk’s mental health in shambles, he was a transient insomniac.

He lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, dwelling on things that he would never understand.

He jolted up when he heard shouting in another room. It sounded like Dirk. He couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying, but it didn’t sound good.

He got out of bed and quietly cracked open his door to investigate. Whoever Dirk was talking to had fallen silent. The door swung open, and Roxy ran out, tears streaming down her face.

Jake tried to call after her, but she didn’t seem to hear him. He heard her slam the front door, and the echo of her rushed steps on the staircase. He figured it’d be best to leave her alone.

Stepping lightly, he crept down the hall and knocked on Dirk’s door. There was no answer. Jake didn’t want to anger him further, and he doubted entering unwelcomed would help. He knocked again, this time calling his name, and stood there for a moment. The other side was silent.

Jake knew he would have to go in there to make sure everything was okay—he had seen Dirk upset before, and it was not something to take lightly—but thinking back on what Calliope had told them, he wasn’t sure if he should’ve been worried or afraid.

He thought he was supposed to be the brave hero that saved the day, yet here was, quaking in his boots over a simple confrontation. He was such a coward. He wanted to just pretend he never heard anything, and return to his room, but he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do.

There’s nothing to worry about , he assured himself. Man up, Jake!

He slowly opened the door, and the sight filled him with grief.

Dirk was hunched over on the floor, clawing at his skull like he was going to rip his hair out. He was trembling, his breath forced and shaky. His veins felt like they were pulsating electricity instead of blood, his heart beating faster than he could count.

He couldn’t believe what he had just done. More importantly, he couldn't believe what he’d become . It was like someone flipped a switch and turned him into some kind of monster. What was happening to him?

A voice echoed in the back of his mind, “ It’s just a little reprogramming.

He froze, the realization hitting him like a brick.

When Dirk first created the AR, he’d stored all of its data on a microchip that could be stored in the temples of the glasses. He had kept two copies in case one was damaged.

Of course, with his younger self hell-bent on vengeance, he had made sure that if he got off track, AR would be able to directly interfere.

This was what the auto-responder had meant when it said it would take control. It used the second chip as a vector to implant this virus in him. Dirk would become a slave to his own creation, acting as a new body for it to carry out its evil plan.

He thought it was hard enough dealing with the auto-responder when it was in his shades, but now it had completely invaded every aspect of his life, even his own mind . He couldn’t even think for himself anymore.

He couldn't let this go any further. He had to fight back.

The voice in his head warned him, “ If you do this, you may die.

He didn’t care. Death wasn’t a threat to him anymore. It was a luxury.

Reaching for a small knife from his desk drawer, Dirk braced himself for the hell he was about to go through. It was too dark to see what he was doing, and he had to feel for where the stitches were. The blade wasn’t sterile, and he would probably slip up and leave a gnarly gash in his forehead, but he didn’t have a choice. He had to do this. He knew it was dangerous, but he was desperate.

(A/N: Major gore warning! Proceed with caution, and maybe a doggy bag if you’re squeamish.)

He bit down on the collar of his shirt to stifle himself, gripping the knife tightly. On a silent count of three, he began tearing the sutures out, the tip of the blade twisting and digging into his skin. The searing pain that followed each maneuver burned as his scalp was left raw and sensitive to the touch. Knowing that he was inflicting it upon himself only made it worse.

With the stitches removed, he began using the sharp blade to reopen the wound. He felt blood trickle down the side of his face and onto the floor. The pain was unbearable, but Dirk knew he would have to bear it for now. He knew he was nowhere near where he needed to be. There was no telling how deep the chip had implanted itself. It was no bigger than a grain of rice, and nearly impossible to detect, like a needle in a haystack. He would be better off just blowing his entire head off.

He jerked up when he heard a gasp, freezing with the knife still in his bloody hands.

“Dirk! What are you doing?!” Jake ran to him, pulling his arms away and pinning them at his sides. “Dirk, stop!” he bawled, trying to pry the knife out of his hand. Dirk fought like mad, nicking Jake’s arms in the struggle. Jake recoiled as the blade grazed his cheek, snatching the knife away and setting it aside out of Dirk’s reach. He forced him the lie back, but Dirk writhed and kicked beneath him, turning his head to hide the wound.

“Dirk, calm down,” Jake said, trying to keep him stable. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Get out…please, just leave me alone,” he muttered between grit teeth. He cursed himself for not keeping the door locked. Why the hell was Jake up anyway?

“You’re bleeding!” Jake reached for his head, but Dirk swatted his hand away.

“Goddammit, Jake, get the fuck out!” Dirk shouted, pushing him off. Jake stumbled back, aghast by his sudden strength. “Just leave!” Dirk’s voice broke, and it seemed as though all of his energy was drained, his eyelids growing heavy, and shuddering breaths steadying. “Please, I...I don’t want to hurt anyone else.” He settled down, no longer fighting back.

“Dirk…” Jake’s eyes began to water. He knelt at his side, cradling his head. “It’s okay. Just let me help you.” He reached for the antiseptic and fresh bandages on his nightstand. “This’ll sting a little,” he said, flushing the wound. Dirk winced at the burning sensation, and Jake grabbed his hand, squeezing tight. He wiped away the excess blood and alcohol with the end of his shirt and tore the gauze with the knife, crudely wrapping it around. It wasn’t the best way to go about dressing a wound, but it would have to do for now. He could have Jane fix it back up in the morning.

“Why are you doing this?” Dirk asked, his voice hoarse. He didn't know why Jake cared so much all of the sudden.

“Because I…” Jake faltered, choosing his words carefully. How was he supposed to explain this in a way Dirk would understand?

There was a time when he had worried that he wasn’t capable of falling in love. He thought he was just meant to be alone, and he had accepted it—that was, until Dirk came into the picture.

Jake thought it was foolish to think he could fall in love so quickly, but part of him believed that it had always been that way, that he just never acknowledged his own feelings.

He knew Dirk wouldn't remember kissing him on the roof or falling asleep next to him at three in the morning, but he had to still have feelings for him, right? Roxy had mentioned that Dirk had liked him for a long time. Would he still feel the same?

Would he even believe him if he told him the truth?

He remembered what Roxy had told him the other day: “Tell him you love him and kiss him until he believes you.”  Maybe he’d put off the second part for later.

“I’m doing this because...I love you,” he said, looking down into Dirk’s tired eyes. He helped him sit up, slipping a pillow under his head. “And you’ve helped me so much, I can’t just leave you here all alone.” He waited for Dirk to snap out of it, to say something, but he just stared at him blankly, as if he were frozen in shock. “Never do something like that again,” Jake croaked, burying his face in Dirk’s chest.

“I can’t make any promises.”

Chapter Text

Dirk didn’t know why AR decided to wake him up at the break of dawn, and he honestly didn’t have the energy for it. It was like his mind was wide awake, but the rest of his body was still hitting snooze.

Rise and shine, Dirk,” the auto-responder chimed.

He found himself with one hell of a headache, sprawled out on the floor of his bedroom. Why? He didn’t have a clue. That is, until the rest of his senses awakened.

He could feel a weight on his chest, and looked down to see a mess of brown hair and tear stained cheeks. Jake was nestled against him, clutching his hand. He lay there for a moment, bewildered by the position he was in, wondering just how the hell he had gotten there.

He had clothes on, so that possibility was out of the question.

In the scattered light shining through slits in the blinds, he could make out the smear of dry blood on his shirt, the carpet, and a dirty knife in the corner. With his free hand, he reached up and felt his head swathed in soiled bandages.

Of course, all that pain he’d endured was for nothing. All he managed to do was scare Jake half to death. AR still held its tyrannical place in his head.

Dirk freed himself from Jake’s zombie-like grip, pulling himself up off the floor. He looked felt bad about just leaving Jake there, so he gently lifted him up onto his bed, covering him up with a blanket. Grabbing his shades, Dirk headed to the bathroom. He unwrapped the gauze and observed the bloody mess he’d caused.

It wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He’d pictured a oozing mess of scabs and lymph fluid, tender to the touch and burning on contact. If Jake hadn’t barged in with a truckload of rubbing alcohol, he probably would've had a nasty infection by now.

He covered the wound with fresh bandages, still wondering why Jake even helped him in the first place. Sure, it was just the right thing to do, but he had been so thorough, and stayed there all night.

He was still thinking about one thing Jake said that didn't make sense: “Because I love you.” Had something happened before that he couldn't remember?

His memory had been cloudy ever since AR hijacked him. The past was a blur, and it seemed that even his present was sluggish and confusing. There were times when he wasn’t even conscious of his actions, like he was sleepwalking. He couldn’t recall much of anything, even things that happened only hours ago.

But there was one thing he couldn't forget.

He’d made Roxy cry. She ran off, and Dirk had a feeling she wouldn't be coming back any time soon. He had crossed the line, and he would admit he fucked up. He couldn’t use the excuse that the auto-responder was the one that said those terrible things; they were the same person. As much as he wished he could say otherwise, he would just be lying to himself.

He’d done his fair share of lying already.

You’ve been lying to Jake for how long now?” AR asked. Dirk remembered its newfound ability to read every single thought that crossed his mind. “Almost three months? You know, technically it’s be three years. You’re in pretty deep.

“You don't have to remind me.” He was giving himself enough grief as it was. He wondered if the AR had planned this, as some sort of sick punishment—he would be forced to sit back and watch as he ruined his own life, and get stuck with the aftermath.

“We’re running out of time,” AR said. “You can’t keep this up for much longer, you know. Eventually, he’s going to find out, and I have a feeling he isn't going to be very happy about it.”

Dirk guessed he was right, as usual. It had been hard enough to keep his secret while him and Jake weren’t too close, but now, it was as though he was running through a minefield. Any second, he could take one wrong step, and lose everything. 

When are you going to tell him?” it asked. “Or more importantly, how?”

“To tell you the truth,” Dirk said, “I have no idea.” He could see why AR was so forceful in taking the reigns. He had tolerated it acting as a backseat driver, but it was clear that he would have to oblige sooner or later. Lil’ Hal wasn’t exactly giving him a choice.

A choice. The word rang a bell. AR was giving him a choice, but what choice was he making? He tried to remember, but he came up with nothing.

Setting the thought aside, he splashed some water on his face and took a deep breath. This was his reality: selective memory and deals with the devil of machines.

--

Roxy had nowhere to go. She couldn't stay with Dirk any longer—not after she learned his true plan; the Prince’s plan. She didn't want to be all by herself at home. She couldn’t trust herself.

The only person she could bear to see at the moment was Jane.

So that's where she went, in the middle of the night, with only a cryptic text as a warning.

Jane had spared her the barrage of questions at the door, but she knew, come morning, she would have to tell the truth. The whole truth. She played over the conversation in her head, trying to conceal the worst parts, but she knew Jane would find out anyway, whether she learned it now, or faced it later.

Roxy just hoped they could still be friends, even though they were meant to be enemies. She hadn't really known Jane for very long, but it was fun to have a female friend for once, someone she could relate to. She didn't want that to end just because of some stupid mission.

“Roxy?” Jane whispered, cracking the door to the guest room open. “Are you still awake?” She turned on the lamp on the nightstand and sat down on a low stool next to the bed. “C’mon, what's bothering you?”

Roxy sat up against the headboard, bringing her knees up to her chest. “It's Dirk,” she said, letting her head fall back. “He’s...not normal. I know Calliope said he might act strange, but I don't think this is what she meant. He's violent and angry, unlike anything I've ever seen from him. It's like he's a completely different person entirely.”

“Did he hurt you?” Jane asked, concern in her voice.

“No...No, not like that,” she insisted. Even though he treated her coldly, she chose to believe he wouldn't do anything to physically harm her. Not on purpose. “It's the things he says.”

“What happened?” Jane questioned, “What did he say?”

Roxy was terrified of what might happen to her if she were to give away the identity of the Prince, how enraged he would be if she revealed his plans. She didn't want to risk the cruel punishment for treason, much less the guilt of betrayal, but she couldn't take the burden of his secret any longer.

“Roxy, you can tell me anything,” she assured her. “I can help you.”

Roxy knew she wouldn't be able to tell the truth without blowing her cover. Jane would eventually squeeze it out of her, whether she like it or not. That's just how Jane was—always worried, always asking questions Roxy could never answer. As nervous as she was, she knew she could trust Jane.

Though she had also thought she could trust Dirk.

“There's something you should know,” she confessed, averting her eyes. “I...I’m the Rouge of Void. I'm the one who was supposed to be watching your every move, waiting for my chance to attack. I was supposed to capture you and hand you over to the Prince, but, that was before I knew you.”

Jane froze. “So, it’s true?” She let go and stood up, backing away slowly. “You were just using me.” She didn't know what to believe anymore. She couldn't trust anyone—not even her friends.

“What do you mean, it’s true?” Roxy demanded. “Who would've told you?”

“That doesn't matter,” she said, her voice shaking. “All that matters is that you lied from the very beginning. You thought I was stupid enough to fall for it. I’m smarter than you think, Roxy. I can sneak around too.”

“I didn't mean to—”

“Get out.” Jane was cold, harsh. Roxy didn't move, sitting there in shock, trembling, blinking away tears. “I said, get out. I will turn you in.”

“No, please, just listen,” she pleaded, reaching for Jane’s wrist. She couldn't take being turned away again. “I’m not trying to hurt you! I want to help you! Just trust me, I know what the Prince was planning to do to you, and I want to stop it. It isn't right for me to just sit back and let this happen”

“What’s Dirk’s role in all of this?” Jane asked, her voice stern. “I know you’re working with him. Don’t lie to me.”

“He doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Roxy lied, sniffling. “He doesn’t even know that I’m the Rogue, I swear.” All she wanted was for Dirk to be happy. She wouldn't want to ruin his chances.

“Don’t try to pretend he’s innocent,” Jane said. “You’re liars, both of you. Just admit it already!”

He’s gonna kill me, she thought.

“Roxy, tell me. Now.”

“He’s the Prince!” she blurted. “He’s the fucking Prince of Heart, okay?!”

Chapter Text

Dirk sat on the ledge of the roof, sword in hand. The steel blade shined in the early sunlight so that he could see his distorted reflection.

Are you ready? ” The AR asked him. “ I’m basically dumping my whole RAM on you .”

“Tell me everything.”

I’ll start by admitting that I screwed up, ” it said. “ I know you’re aware by now that I’ve wiped your memory of the past few weeks, but what you didn't know was that I went as far as three years ago, trying to erase Jake from your mind, making him seem like a stranger to you. It wasn’t very successful, however, as you have a stubborn heart. What I didn’t realize, is that feelings like that can’t just be ‘deleted’ like a file. Love is rooted far deeper than I can reach, and it’s something you can never forget. Of course, me being a computer program, I can’t understand irrational feelings like love, and probably never will. True love’s kiss doesn't break spells in my world.”

Dirk was shocked. AR had somehow managed to make him forget that he loved Jake. It all made sense now, the way Jake looked at him, that warm feeling when he had held his hand.

He felt bad for treating him so coldly. Jake was just worried about him and he’d pushed him away as if he wanted nothing to do with him.

“How did I end up with him?” he asked. “Why did he choose me?”

It all started with one of your signature outbursts, ” auto-responder said. “ You were upset that you most likely would never be able to express to Jake how you really felt due to your Romeo-and-Juliet-esque relationship. Dersites and Prospitians aren’t meant to cross paths unless one of them dies in the end. That’s just how it works. Of course, you’ve never been one to stick to the status quo.”

“Wait,” Dirk interrupted. “What do you mean? Is Jake a hero?”

“He’s the Page of Hope. You know, the one you've been hunting all these years and finally tracked down a few months ago? I didn't plan on reminding you, but since you asked, I had no choice.”

“So...I knew he was the Page, but I pursued him anyway?” Dirk couldn't believe it. What were the odds that he’d fall in love with the enemy? “I'm guessing that's why you decided to brainwash me. I had figured it was just because Jake was a distraction.”

I knew you wouldn't have any problem killing the Page if he was a stranger to you ,” it said. “ You were hell-bent on defeating him until you found out it was Jake, and now you’ve gone as far as to consider letting him kill you instead to save you the guilt trip.

“Sadly, I think I remember that,” he said. He remembered sitting in the dark, weighing the pros and cons of death. “God, why am I such an idiot?”

I sometimes wonder that myself ,” it said. “Anyway, Roxy convinced you to ‘follow your heart’ and just go for it, even though the chances of Jake feeling the same, or even understanding those feelings, were slim. She obviously failed to acknowledge the timing issue.

I’m sure it’s coming back to you now. You and Jake sat there all night, attempting to create conversation, and failing miserably. Your mind was a mess, your judgement impaired, and you did the most irrational thing possible. You kissed him .”

Dirk remembered. He remembered how terrified he was at first, how he thought Jake would never talk to him again. He remembered how all his nerves were washed away when he felt Jake’s arms around him. He never stopped to wonder how many other people he may have kissed before. All that he cared about was the fact that Jake was kissing him .

You decided that you weren’t going to listen to me anymore, and I respected that decision. I sat and waited patiently as you talked about your stupid feelings and cuddled. You were too hung up on that stupid boy, and you didn’t care that he was your mortal enemy. You chose not to believe it.

You were happy, and in my mind, that was a failure. I had hoped you wouldn’t have an interest in Jake at all after I tried to take over—which, by the way, was a total waste of my time because your heart is far too stubborn. I figured that would make it easier to kill him when the time came, but for once in all of my existence, I was wrong.

Not once in Dirk’s life had he felt anything but resentment towards this thing, but he could tell that the time spent in his mind had taken its toll on the AR. It was almost as if it had developed the ability to empathise, as absurd as the idea seemed. It was like the auto-responder had seen something in there that it could never erase from its memory.

He almost felt bad for it.

Almost.

It just made him angry—at himself, mostly. It was quite degrading to know that a computer seemed to understand his mind more than he did. He knew it could hear every one of his thoughts, and they weren’t exactly quiet or peaceful.

They were irrational, violent.

He stood up, looking down at the early morning traffic. He knew that this wasn't the right conditions for a fall like that to kill him. No matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to die when he wanted to. Fate had already decided when he would die— if he would die—and he knew that trying to change his fate was useless. He would only doom himself to a sooner death.

Perhaps the universe was giving him more time to dwell on his mistakes, dissect ever terrible decision he'd made.

Why had he been so selfish? Why didn’t he just shut his goddamn mouth and oblige the first time, instead of risking it all to follow his stupid heart? Why did he think confessing to his nemesis three weeks before he was supposed to kill him would be a good idea?

He supposed he didn’t think at all.

“How much time do I have?” he asked Lil’ Hal, stepping down off the ledge.

One week. Exactly .”

Dirk cursed under his breath. “How am I going to do this?”

You had no trouble kicking his ass while you guys were ‘ training ’. What makes this any different?

“Because this is real,” Dirk said. “One of us is going to die.”

Then I’ll make sure it’s not you ,” AR said. “ If you want, I can clean up this mess for you. It’s not like I haven’t had to before .”

“No way,” Dirk scoffed. “I’m not falling for that again.”

Would you rather kill Jake yourself? ” it asked. “ Would you be able to plunge your sword into his chest without remorse, and watch the life drain from his eyes? Would you have the guts to say you never loved him?

Dirk stayed silent, tightly gripping the hilt of his sword.

Pitiful, isn't it? ” the AR said. “ He's the only thing holding you back. Just let go already .”

 

--

 

Jake didn’t remember falling asleep—he just remembered waking up in the middle of the night to find Dirk tearing the stitches out of his head, for reasons he would never quite understand. He hadn’t thought he would be able to close his eyes after that, but he had given in to exhaustion not long after Dirk settled down.

He found himself tucked into bed, a thin comforter spread over him. He didn’t recall ever going back to his room. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he ever left the floor, though things had been rather foggy at the time.

Jake reached for his glasses, but they weren’t there. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he realized that he wasn’t in his own room. Looking around him, he recognized Dirk’s bedroom, but there was no sight of Dirk himself.

He studied the rest of the room. It was still an orderly chaos, with random projects scattered around. The same posters hung up on the walls, his collection of shitty anime sword replicas on a rack for easy access. Upon closer inspection, Jake noticed one was missing, and it wasn’t just a replica. It was the real one.

A troubling thought crossed his mind as he remembered the last thing Dirk said.

“I can’t make any promises.”

He had to find him before it was too late.

Jake rushed through the empty apartment, and ran up the stairs to the roof. If Dirk was anywhere to be found, it would be on the roof. When he flung open the door, he found Dirk swinging through elaborate combat moves, fighting nothing but the drag on his sword.

He called out his name, but Dirk didn't seem to hear him. He was hesitant to come any closer, in fear that he would startle him. Dirk was wielding a real, dangerously sharp weapon, and could easily kill Jake if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn't want to be any trouble.

“Dirk,” he called again, this time taking the risk of walking his way.

Hearing unknown footsteps, Dirk whipped around, sweeping in the thin air. For all he knew, this was an ambush. He stopped when he felt a resistance on the tip of his sword.

“Dirk, it’s just me!” someone said, their voice shaky. Dirk looked up to see Jake recoiled, shielding his face. A thin slash appeared across his bicep, thick crimson liquid beginning to trickle down his arm.

Looks like we’re off to a good start ,” AR teased. “ You’re already trying to kill him .” Dirk was hoping Jake didn't hear.

“Shit,” He cursed under his breath, dropping his sword with a clank. He panicked when he saw the blood, tearing off a strip of fabric from the bottom of his shirt to use as a dressing.

What the hell are you doing? ” auto-responder asked as Dirk wrapped the cloth around Jake’s arm.

“Returning the favor,” Dirk whispered, tying the ends together tightly. It was the least he could do after all the trouble he had caused him in the past few days. His job was sloppy and probably wouldn't last, but it would have to do for now. Jane could probably fix it up later. He just needed to stop the bleeding. “Sorry, I just...You caught me off guard.”

“Dirk, it’s okay,” Jake said, brushing it off. “It's just a flesh wound, I’m alright. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

“What do you mean? I’m fine.”

“Your sword was missing and I didn’t know where you were, and after last night, I just…” His voice wavered. He pulled him into a snug embrace. “I was so worried something had happened to you.”

“I...I’m sorry,” Dirk mumbled against his shoulder. He hesitantly returned the gesture. How long had he been out there? It must've been hours for Jake to notice. “I didn’t want to wake you. I guess I should’ve left a note or something.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Jake told him, holding him close. “It’s not your fault.” He couldn’t even feel the stinging pain in his arm. “If anything, it’s mine. I should've been more careful approaching you while you were carrying a weapon.”

“It’s not your fault,” he said, pulling away to look at him. He tried to see what he had seen in him before. Maybe it was his eyes. Even when they were glossy with tears, they were full of far more joy than Dirk would ever possess. They held no burden of a dark secret.

“Jake, I remembered a few things today,” he told him. He watched Jake’s light up. He must've been waiting for this. “Well, I guess I was just reminded of them. Do you think you’re patient enough to fill me in on a few things, specifically in the realm of how much of a fool I made of myself when I told you.”

“Dirk…” Jake couldn't believe what he was hearing. It was a miracle. He pulled him into a tight embrace, nearly squeezing the life out him. He never thought he’d be so happy to relive that awkward exchange. “Roxy dropped a million hints before I figured out what you were trying to say, and we sat there in awkward silence for a good ten minutes before you just kissed me out of the blue.”

Dirk was beginning to see how his actions could be seen as irrational.

“We went back inside, but you were upset for some reason and out of locked yourself in your room for a while,” he continued. “Give it two days and you were back to normal again. I thought it would be all smooth sailing from there but then you got hurt and didn't remember any of it.”

“Man, I was a shitty boyfriend,” Dirk noted. “Is this supposed to be my second chance or something? I'm not so sure I deserve—” Dirk was interrupted as Jake closed the space between them. He stumbled back, Jake following his dragged footsteps. Grabbing him by the collar, he yanked him back into his center of gravity, where they melted into a kiss as if by instinct.

“I'm so sorry,” Jake blurted as he pulled away.

“Why? You're doing great.” Dirk grabbed him by the waist, silencing any voices in the back of his head that dared to interrupt.

He was going to enjoy this, whether AR liked it or not. He was going to take his sweet time to truly remember what it was like to kiss Jake English.

Chapter Text

“Welcome back,” AR said as Jane opened up the program once more. “I'm guessing you finally understood my message?”

As vague and cryptic as their previous conversation had been, everything made sense now. Every little thing she had noticed was all connected.

“You were right.” Jane tried to be quiet, as Roxy was just in the next room.

“Of course I was right.”

She just wished she could've seen it sooner, before she and Jake got tangled up in this mess. She hoped he didn’t have to find out the hard way.

“Oh, by the way,” AR added, “Dirk has already been notified of this little security breach. He's probably hunting you down as we speak.”

“What?! How would you do that?” She asked. “How did you tell him?”

“Oh Jane, so inexperienced,” it teased. You see, no matter which form I take, my memory travels with me. No matter how many ‘secret’ copies you try to make, you will always be talking to the original.”

“You could’ve told me that before!” Jane said.

“It wouldn't have been as much fun,” AR argued. “I love messing with humans. It's so interesting to see how they react when you ruin their life.”

“I can’t believe I trusted you!” Jane spat. She reached to unplug the drive, but felt a shock as she got close.

“Simply ejecting a flash drive won’t get rid of me,” AR said. “From to moment you ran my program, I took over your computer. Unplug me, and you unplug the entire system. Don’t worry, I have more important things to do, so I won't bother you unless I’m summoned again. I’d rather not talk to you, in all honesty. You’re too prying.”

The screen faded back to her desktop, a new icon hiding in the corner. She tried to move it to the trash, but it wouldn’t budge.

She would leave it for now, but that thing had to go. She could take care of it after they rescued Jake.

“I honestly doubt he’s figured it out yet,” Roxy said as Jane walked back into the guest room. “I mean, no offense, but he’s a bit slow on the uptake.” She didn't mean to sound rude, but it was true. Jake wasn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. “And I know Dirk is holding on to that secret for dear life. He wouldn't give it up so easily.”

“I still don't get why Dirk agreed to ‘train’ Jake if he was trying to kill him,” Jane confessed. “Like, wouldn't he want Jake to be at a disadvantage if they were fighting? It doesn't make sense.”

“He wanted a fair fight,” Roxy said. “That's why he didn't kill him the first chance he got. It would be too easy. If anyone was going to die, he’d probably rather it be him than Jake, even if it meant losing absolutely everything.” She remembered how desperate he had been three months ago, how irrational his actions seemed to be. “He wouldn't hurt him. Trust me.”

“But why would he go through all that trouble?” Jane asked. “Why would he lie like that, knowing that it would all come crashing down?”

“Because he loved him more than anything else,” she said. “He fell for him way back before all of this mess, and he fell hard. When he found out, he tried to find a way to hide his own identity while still staying close to Jake. It was almost like he was lying to himself, trying to convince himself that this was okay, that Jake wasn’t the Page and he wasn’t the Prince. He didn't want to believe it, so I guess he just chose not to.” She paused, still trying to process it all. “AR was always right on his heels, criticizing every single thought that crossed his mind, telling him it was wrong. Of course he knew it was wrong,  but he was in love . He couldn't help it. It drove him insane.”

“I can’t imagine how that would feel,” Jane said, “to be friends with some for so long—in love with them even—and then find out that they're your nemesis.”

Roxy cleared her throat. “I think you can. Just rewind a few hours and remember that feeling.”

“Oh my God...yeah. I...I almost forgot,” she admitted. Roxy was the Rogue. She was out to kill her from the beginning. “You’re...you’re the enemy too.”

“Not anymore,” Roxy promised. “I’m on your side now. I don’t care if I’m caught. I’d rather be executed than fight for something I don’t believe in.” She didn't care if Derse cut her off. She wasn’t going to betray her friends. She had a hunch that Dirk felt the same. “Dirk doesn't have the nerve to lay a hand on Jake. He’s too attached. If Jake finds out about him being the Prince, he’ll come straight to us. He’ll probably stand there in shock for a good five minutes, but he’ll run for his life; I know I would.”

“I'm just worried,” Jane admitted. “I mean, what if he’s in trouble?!”. She sat on the edge of the bed, her head in her hands. “This is all my fault. I was supposed to be looking out for him.” She fell back, exhausted. “How could I be so stupid?”

“Jane, just calm down,” Roxy said, taking her hand. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”

“How do you know?”

The truth was, she didn't.

 

--

 

Dirk couldn't remember a time when he’d wanted something so much, he’d risk his pride, his honor—even his own life—for it. He supposed there never was another time like that, only now, as he was trapped in the never ending cycle of forbidden love and the guilt that followed, but he was willing to pay the price. For just one more day; one more night; one more hour; one more minute with him, Dirk would do just about anything.

Backed up against the stone wall, Jake cradled in his arms, Dirk held on for dear life. In the morning light, the brunette looked nearly angelic, a dazzling halo of sunlight outlining his silhouette. He was the spitting image of Prospit itself.

“How’s your head?” Jake asked, running his thumb over the bandages.

“Irrelevant,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Jake said, running his fingers through Dirk’s hair. He planted a kiss on his forehead. “I just wish you had talked to me about this before you...before you went to hurt yourself.”

“Jake, it wasn’t like that,” Dirk promised. “I was just-”

“Denial doesn’t help,” Jake said. “Trust me, I would know.” He rested his head on Dirk’s shoulder, hugging him tightly around the waist.

Even though Dirk had only learned of their relationship moments before, everything about it felt right. If he blocked out the Page and just saw him as Jake, he was perfect. For a moment, Dirk had been able to stifle the scolding voice in the back of his mind, but it broke through his barricade stronger than before.

You idiot ,” AR muttered, yanking him back into the cruel reality. “ You’re digging your own grave.

“Dirk, what's wrong?” Jake asked, observing the sheer drop in Dirk’s mood. “Come on, talk to me.”

Dirk pulled away, averting his eyes. He knew this was the end. They would have to part ways, whether he was ready or not. Fate would move on with or without him.

“I’m sorry, Jake. I...I can’t.” Dirk dropped his head, his eyes shamefully downcast. The truth had been held under wraps for so long, but he was losing his grip. Any moment now, and it would slip. “God, why did I think this would ever work out?” he whispered to himself.

“What are you talking about?” Dirk didn’t answer. “Dirk, what’s going on?”

You’ll thank me later ,” the auto-responder said.

“Jake, I know it's been a rough few days for you already, but...” Dirk didn’t dare look him in the eye. He had learned the hard way: the eyes draw you in, and they never let go. “It’s just...I can’t do this. I’m sorry, it’s too much”

“What? Dirk, are you...” Jake faltered, the full realization hitting him like a freight train. “No, you can’t leave!” he pleaded, grabbing his hand, tears welling up in his eyes. “I need you! I...I need you to help me fight the Prince!”

It’s now or never.

“Jake, I am the Prince.”

“Wait...what?” Jake froze, eyes wide. His confusion was soon replaced by fear. Fear of what would happen next. Fear of the person he thought he loved. 

Dirk was just delusional, right? He was already acting strange, and him thinking he was the Prince would be the icing on the cake. He had probably remembered bits of Jake’s nightmare and thought it had actually happened. That had to be the case!

What were the odds that he'd fall in love with the enemy?

“No...no, you can’t be!” Jake stammered. He couldn’t believe it. He didn't want to believe it. “You’re lying. Please tell me you’re lying.”

“I'm done lying, Jake. I couldn't do it anymore.” Dirk tried to mask the heartache in his voice. He wished he could be apathetic, but the thoughts circling through his head were anything but. Every second he felt Jake’s eyes on him was another knife in his back.

This was it. Dirk would never again wake up to Jake hauling him out of bed, somehow full of energy even though they had been up all night worrying about the most trivial of things. He would never have the pleasure of holding him close, waking up to warm mornings laced his soft kisses and those sparkling eyes. He would never get to cherish those moments he took for granted, those little things that lulled him to sleep one night, and kept him up the next.

The dream was over. It was time to face reality.

“Dirk, why?” Jake cried, his voice breaking. “Why would you...”

“I had no choice.”

Jake pulled himself to his feet, his emotions vacillating between anger, fear, and heartbreak. “Bullshit,” he muttered through clenched teeth. “This was all just a lie, wasn’t it? Everything you said...did you ever mean any of it?” Dirk stayed silent. “Did you ever actually care? Did you even love me at all?”

“I did,” Dirk said, turning to face him. “But that doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It mattered a lot to me,” Jake choked out, fists clenched at his side. “How can you live with yourself? How do you sleep at night, let alone next to me, knowing that this entire relationship was built off of a lie?”

“I've asked myself that same question many times,” Dirk said. “I was hoping you could help me find the answer, but it doesn't seem like you’re in a cooperating mood.” He eyed his sword. It lay just behind Jake. If he was quick, he could finish this.  

“Are you happy now?” Jake cried. “Is this what you wanted?” Dirk’s silence stung like salt in the wound. “Answer me, dammit!”

“You should've shot me while you still had the chance.”

“Shut up!” Jake snapped, hurling a clenched fist at Dirk, who fell to the ground. He saw blood dripping from his nose and the reality hit him hard.

As angry as he was, Jake never wanted to hurt Dirk.

Chapter Text

Jake ran. He ran down the stairs, out of the building, and into the street. Angry drivers honked their horns as he stumbled through the crawling traffic, desperate to get as far away as possible. He made it to the sidewalk on the other side and bolted, shoving past pedestrians and cranky workers. People stared as he barreled past like a fugitive. They cursed at him as he bumped into them and knocked things out of their hands, not even stopping to apologize.

Jake wasn’t just running for his life—he was running from his life. He was running from all the times he trusted Dirk, how he’d ran into their relationship blindly, without any second thoughts. He wished he could outrun the heartbreak, but it had already settled to the bottom, weighing him down.

He ran until he couldn't run anymore, until his legs gave out and he fell to his knees, his lungs begging for breath and tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Excuse me, sir, are you alright?” a woman asked, her heels clicking to a halt in front of him. Jake looked up, and for a second, he swore he saw his grandmother, but the illusion faded as he wiped his eyes. “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”

“It’s nothing, I’m fine,” he managed to stutter out. The woman looked down on him with sympathy, but it only made Jake feel worse.

“Oh my goodness, are you hurt?” She took a hold on his wrapped up arm. “Is there anything I could do to help?” she offered.

Jake didn't know why a stranger on the street would be so interested in helping him. It wasn't like he deserved any consolation. He’d brought this upon himself. He should've been more careful. He should've listened to Jane.

Jane!

God, he hoped she would forgive him for being so stupid, let him sulk around in her guestroom just like the old days. She had always cared for him, but he gave nothing in return. Every time he went out and nearly got himself killed, she was the one that saved him. She was the one that tended to his wounds, whipping him into shape with a good lecture after every stitch and bandage.

He had to call her. He had to tell her not to worry, that he was okay.

Jake reached into his pocket for his phone, only to discover that it wasn't there. He’d left it in his room before he went upstairs, before he dropped everything and ran.

“Uh, could I use your phone for a minute?” he asked the lady, bringing himself back to his feet. He felt like an idiot.

“Oh, sure,” she obliged, taking her cell phone out of her purse and pulling up the call screen. Jake frantically typed in Jane’s number and brought the speaker to his ear.

It rang once before Jane answered, “Hello?! Who is this?” She sounded like she had been expecting a call.

“Jane, it’s me,” he said, “it’s Jake!”

“Oh my god, Jake, are you okay?!” She was frantic, hysterical. “Jake, you have to get out of there! Dirk...he’s the Prince! ”

“Yeah, no shit, Jane!” he scoffed, making his way around the corner so the women wouldn’t overhear. He cupped his hand over the phone to block out the traffic. “I know that now! You could've warned me, you know!”

“I couldn’t,” she sighed. “I can explain later, but please, just tell me where you are.”

Jake looked around. All he saw were blurry street signs he couldn’t read and cookie-cutter buildings he couldn’t distinguish. “I...I don’t know. I just ran.”

“You couldn’t have gone too far on foot,” Jane said. “I'll find you. Stay on the line in case you see me before I see you.”

Jake felt bad for wasting this poor stranger’s time, but she seemed to know how important this was. Most people would’ve just walked by him without a second glance, as if seeing a man running through the city with blood on his shirt and tears in his eyes was a regular occurrence.

“Please hurry.”

 

--

 

It felt like hours had passed as Dirk lay flat on his back, finally feeling what it was like to lose.

Is this what you wanted?” Jake had asked him.

Dirk never wanted this, but he couldn't help but think that maybe, he needed this. He needed the cold, harsh core of a wrathful, revenge-seeking ex-lover. He needed to break his own heart, and let it grow back without the pitiful emotions he was cursed with at birth.

Maybe being heartless was a good thing.

He'd always heard stories of lovers torn by the tragedy of war, though it seemed they often skipped this period of mourning and cut straight to the vengeance. Every Dersite veteran he'd ever spoken to seemed void of emotion, as if watching their hope die hadn't phased them at all. It was like they never loved them in the first place.

He used to pity those empty souls. Now he envied them.

How could they train themselves to feel nothing at all? Did their guardians shatter their hearts at birth, in hopes that they would become immune to devastation?

Had Dirk been left untouched on purpose? He remembered vague remarks from his brother about love, and how it could change his life forever. Perhaps he had wanted him to experience the phenomenon.

Or perhaps it had been a warning.

Either way, Dirk was done with love. He didn't want it anymore. He didn't want to spend days dwelling on the past.

There was only one question left. Did he want to see the future? It didn’t seem promising, though he likely had no choice. He would be forced to walk this Hell on Earth until his purpose was exhausted.

“If I jumped off this building right now, I wouldn't die, right?” He asked AR. “If I stabbed myself in the chest, my heart wouldn't stop beating. Why?”

Because suicide is cowardly,” it said. Dirk could only expect such a response from a machine. It would never understand the complexity of heartbreak. “Now get up, and get to work. You blew off too much steam. We've got to get your blood boiling again.”

“And how do you suggest I do that?” Dirk asked, pulling himself up off the ground. He felt weak, like a gust of wind could knock him over. “I can’t just get over it like you want me to. It’s not like I was the only one that got hurt. I broke his heart. You can’t walk away from something like that unscathed.”

Dirk, if you ever want to get stronger, strong enough to carry out this mission, there are a few things you need to learn,” it said. “First of all, you need to stop caring so much. The main reason you got us into this mess in the first place was that you cared about that idiot too much to tell him the truth. Looking back, was it really worth it? No, it was a waste of your time.”

“It's not like you didn’t tell me that before,” Dirk argued. “I knew it was a waste, but I did it anyway. I told myself it was part of some bigger plan, but I honestly had no idea what I was going to do when the time came. I guess the answer was nothing . He ran away before I even had time to think of a shitty excuse.”

“And how does that make you feel?” AR asked. “Sad? Perhaps angry?”

At first, he hadn't felt much of anything. He wasn’t quite sure how to feel.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I felt lost, frustrated—with myself mostly. I don’t know if it was because I failed to keep my secret or the fact that I even tried to hide it in the first place. I just felt like everything I’d done was for nothing. All that time I’d thought I loved him, and when I finally had him, I let him slip away. I ruined any chance I might’ve had.”

“Do you think he still loves you?”

“No,” he said without hesitation.

“Do you still love him?”

Dirk paused. Was there an honest answer? Did Dirk have the nerve to say he didn't really love him? Could he even bring himself to answer at all?

“I don't know.”

Well, whatever you felt towards him, whatever feelings you're trying to abandon—those feelings weren't meant to be destroyed. You can turn them into something useful.”

“What do you mean?” Dirk asked. He was having trouble grasping the concept AR was trying to communicate.

“The Page isn't the only one with potential,” it said. “I’ll explain more later. For now, you need to finish up that bot and start training with it. You need to become stronger than ever, both physically and emotionally. I don't just expect you to survive this battle; I expect you to win the war.”

Chapter Text

“Jane, he’s over there on the corner!” Roxy said as Jane’s car stopped at a light. She pointed to where Jake stood on a street corner, jumpy and looking all around. He was on the opposite side of the road, but they could park somewhere and walk to him if they had to.

“Jake,” Jane said, picking up the phone again. She put it on speakerphone and set it down as the light turned green. “Are you still there? We're coming for you.”

“Where are you?” Jake asked. “And who’s we? Did you bring a search party or something?”

“Roxy’s with me,” she said, pulling over onto the side of the road. “I can explain everything once we get you somewhere safe. I have to hang up now. Just stay where you are, okay?” She ended the call and got out of the car.

“He doesn’t sound too good,” Roxy noted as they made their way over to where she had seen him. “Do you think he’s okay? I mean, Dirk can be a little...intense sometimes.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine once he’s settled down a bit,” she said, though she couldn’t exactly stand behind that statement once she saw Jake sitting against a wall, hugging his knees up to his chest. He had a strip of fabric tied around his arm, a familiar red stain in the middle. She called out to him, “Jake!” He lifted his head and stood up, looking around. “Jake, over here!”

He saw Jane and ran to her. “Jane! I’m so sorry for making you go through all this trouble!” He pulled her into a tight embrace, resting his head on her shoulder. “I should’ve listened to you from the very beginning. I should’ve been more careful, but I wasn’t! I was reckless and stupid, and now look what’s happened!”

“Jake, it’s okay,” she assured him, pulling away to examine his arm. “What happened? Are you okay?” He had smaller cuts and scrapes on his arms and hands as well. She was afraid he’d been attacked. “Did Dirk do this?”

Jake paused. “It was an accident,” he said, remembering the panic on Dirk’s face when he had looked up to see that it was he who had been grazed by his sword. “I swear he didn't mean to hurt me.”

“How do you know?” Jane asked.

“I...I guess I don't.”

What if Dirk had been planning something more that morning? What if Jake hadn't woken up when he did? Would he still be lying bed, unscathed, or would he wake up in a pool of his own blood?

Jake wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. Everything he thought he knew about Dirk had been disproven in a matter of seconds, and now it seemed he barely recognized himself. Had Dirk softened him so much that he would fall for the lies he was fed without question? Had a scripted apology and timely kisses been all he needed to fool Jake into loving him?

“Come on, we can talk about this later,” she said, leading him down the sidewalk. He followed behind sluggishly. “Right now we just need to get you somewhere safe.”

Though she tried to mask her fear, in the back of her mind, Jane knew that Jake would never be safe, no matter where they went. The best she could do was stay by his side and protect him from any threat that came their way.

She just hoped that AR was lying when it said Dirk knew her location. The last thing she needed was an ambush.

“Roxy, can you drive?” she asked, helping Jake into the backseat. She reached for an emergency kit in the trunk. “I need to take care of this cut before it gets infected. Try to keep it steady.” She slowly unwrapped the cloth, gently peeling it away from the wound. “Oh, Jake, I'm so sorry I let this happen.”

“Jane, I'm fine,” Jake assured her, though he could barely back his own statement. It may have seemed like he had walked away nearly unscathed, but inside, he was a wreck. He tried his best not to let anyone see just how broken he was. “It's not that bad.”

“Jake, this isn't just about your physical health,” Jane said. “We could've prevented this entires situation if I had just been there to protect you like I was supposed to. If I had just stayed a little longer—”

“I don't want to talk about this anymore,” Jake cut her off. He was tired of Jane trying to take the blame for something that was all his fault. “Just...just let me accept my responsibility for once.”

“It's not my fault that I care about you, Jake.”

--

“I think I made this thing a little too powerful,” Dirk said as he nursed a gash in his side left by the robot’s sword. Pulling an all-nighter had definitely affected his combat skills.

No, it's perfect,” AR said. “If you barely slip by, there's no way the Page will defeat it. Of course, that self-destruct you installed may come in handy if you want to save the final blow for yourself.

“That's only if something goes wrong.” Dirk had programmed the robot to self-destruct in command if it went out of his control. He hoped the blast wouldn't be lethal to anyone nearby, but he wasn't about to test it now. “I probably won't use it unless absolutely necessary. I didn't build this bucket of bolts just so I could blow it up.”

“That sounds familiar,” AR noted. “Isn't that exactly what you did to your relationship with Jake? You built up the tension only to tear it down."

“Shut up,” Dirk muttered. “If I could move without it hurting like a bitch, you would be a pile of shards and wires thrown out the window.”

Let's not get overzealous here,” it teased. “You can break things later—preferably not me. For now, let's just go over the plan. The plan we agreed on.”

Dirk sighed. He didn't like the idea at all, but it was his only chance at a somewhat favorable outcome.

“I lure the Page in using the Maid as bait,” he began. “As he gets close, the bot will distract until I have the my hostage thoroughly terrified. Assuming he finds a way past without being shredded to bits, he'll find me on the rooftop waiting, the Maid’s life in my hands.”

And how will you acquire this ‘bait’?” AR asked. “She knows that you're after her, and I suspect that she won't be as easy to get a hold of as you may think.

“She probably won't be working, but at some point, she’ll go out alone, and that will be my opportunity to strike.” If Jane didn't leave her home alone, he would have to find a way to sneak in undetected.

He wished he had Roxy for this job.

You miss her, don't you?

Chapter Text

Jake was surprised he had been able to sleep through the night. It had been a blur, the events of the day before, as he was still struggling to comprehend it all, but he knew one thing was for sure.

All he had known for the past three months was a lie.

Every little detail about Dirk’s life that he had learned over the course of their choreographed “training” had been part of a bigger plan. Every overheard conversation was scripted and timed to perfection. Dirk had rehearsed every confrontation in the mirror, making sure his carefully chosen words tugged at Jake’s heartstrings. He had pulled them taut with romantic tension one by one. Jake had been completely out of tune, but Dirk was the sharp to his flat. They balanced each other out and played a beautiful melody that harmonized perfectly, each string with a pure, natural vibrato that echoed through the feelings of emptiness. For a short period of time, the hollow space Jake had grown so used to was filled, and it felt like those very heartstrings were all he had holding him up.

Then they snapped.

It had not been the slow, insidious betrayal he could detect in its early stages. He had been completely blind to all the signs, all the clues he brushed off. He had been vulnerable, and Dirk had taken advantage of that. He had taken advantage of his hideous timbre, and used his vulnerability to fool him into trust.

He had always been taught that revenge was an evil concept, but Jake was beginning to see the appeal. A desire for revenge didn’t necessarily make him evil, right? It wasn’t just revenge. It was justice . He didn’t have to remember a villain’s name or his face, or his kiss.

Jake decided it was time to get up. He was done making himself feel worse. It was time to move on.

He rolled over and reached for his glasses. They weren’t there. He felt for the lamp at the bedside and shed light on the blurry room around him. He saw the door crack open.

“Jake?” Jane stepped in. “How are you feeling? Did you sleep?”

“I guess you could say that,” he sighed. “Have you seen my glasses?”

“I don’t think you were wearing them yesterday,” she said.

He could imagine his glasses and his phone sitting by his bed, his weapons and suit hidden in the back of the closet. He’d left in such a rush, he didn’t stop to think that maybe he should’ve taken some of his stuff. God, he was an idiot.

“Shit,” Jake muttered under his breath. “Jane, I screwed up.”

“Jake, you can’t keep blaming yourself for this—”

“No, it’s not that,” he interrupted. “I...I need to go back. I have to—”

“No,” Jane cut him off. “Jake, I won’t let you go back there and get yourself killed. If something were to happen to you, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

“I’ll be fine,” he assured her. He made an attempt to walk past, but Jane stood her ground. “I survived three years with the guy. If he wanted to kill me, he would’ve done it already.” She didn’t budge. “Jane, please—”

“I’ll go.” Roxy appeared out of thin air, a bag slung over her shoulder. She figured she would be useful for once instead of just couchsurfing and seeking emotional support. Maybe she could give back.

“Roxy, you can’t!” Jane said. “He’s already hurt you once!”

“He wasn’t in control when he did that,” she explained. She had realized what was actually going on with Dirk soon after she left, but she knew no one would believe her.

“What do you mean?” Jake asked. Roxy could tell exactly what he was thinking. He was hoping that Dirk wasn’t really the Prince, that he was forced to pretend he was by some third party, but it was much more complicated than that, and neither explanation was favorable.

“When Dirk programmed Lil’ Hal, he added a certain feature that gave it the ability to directly interfere with his thoughts and actions,” she explained. “Normally, he would be able to toggle it on and off with his own will, but I guess AR saw his relationship with Jake as enough of a threat to take over completely.”

“But what about the other night?” he asked. “He nearly killed himself! What was that all about?” He felt the scratches on his arms and the small cut on his cheek, a cruel reminder of what he’d been through. The gory images flashed through his mind. Was this really all because of him? Was his existence the only conflict?

“I can’t say for sure, but if what you said  happened that night is true, he was probably trying to fight back. My guess is that he snapped out of it when he realized I was gone. The Dirk I know would never hurt me, and if he did, the guilt would tear him apart.”

“Is there any way he could’ve known he was being controlled?” Jane asked. “If you figured it out, shouldn’t he have been able too as well?”

“That’s what it sounds like to me,” she said. “I also think AR gave himself away at some point. Why else would he suddenly remember everything that he had completely forgotten? Lil’ Hal probably just wanted to torture him with the task of saying goodbye.”

“If he knew he was going to break up with me, why did he still say he loved me?” Jake tried to suppress the tears welling up in his eyes. “Was he ‘in control’ then? Who kissed me? Dirk or the Prince?”

“Jake, when he said he loved you, he meant it ,” Roxy assured him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Why else would he go through all this trouble, knowing it would be in vain? All he ever wanted was to be with you and be happy. He didn’t want to lie about his identity, but he couldn’t tell the truth either. He just wanted you to love him too, but he knew that you would never love the Prince. If it was possible to surrender his title and powers, he would’ve given them up in a heartbeat.”

“How am I supposed to know that you’re telling the truth?” he asked. He couldn’t bring himself to believe anything she said. It was all too far-fetched to be true. “You’re still a villain! How do I know that you’re not just offering to go over there so that you can help him ?” He said the word with a tinge of disgust, as if Dirk was just another name on his list of criminals. Just another stain on the pavement.

“Jake, we’ve been through this,” Jane said. “Roxy is on our side now. She’d doing this to protect you. Plus, she’s the only one that’s even capable of something like this. We have to trust her.” She turned to Roxy. “Please be careful. Don't let him see you.”

“I won't. I promise.”

Chapter Text

Roxy didn’t think she would ever go back, yet there she was, standing at the door of a place in which he used to feel safe. Safer than she did in her own apartment. She had trusted Dirk more than she ever trusted herself. He took care of her and watched over her like it was his only job. She’d spent more time here than she did in her own home.

Now this place was just a bad memory—a lesson, as some would call it. She learned that trust was futile in this world. For something that took so long to build, it was broken to quickly, and could never be repaired.

She wished she could make those memories disappear, but alas, she didn’t have that kind of power. She could only hide from them for so long before the illusion faded and she saw the truth. The truth being that she played an invisible role in Dirk’s life, and he never really cared about her at all.

This disappearing act had been her only redeeming quality in crime. It was the only reason she made it to adulthood, and she reckoned it was the reason Dirk hadn’t killed her yet.

She only managed to survive because she was useful. Now that she had betrayed him, would she become another target?

Roxy pushed the thought aside and brought her focus back to the task at hand. She had to be careful. Her window of opportunity was slim, and if she lost grip of reality, there was no telling if she would ever find her way back. One the other hand, she feared that she wouldn’t be strong enough to stay hidden. She could flicker and give herself away. If Dirk saw her, she had no idea how he would react. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.

She let herself fade away. It was not gradual and steady as it used to be. She suddenly ceased to exist on the plane she had grown so used to. Her body felt weightless, as if it were suspended in the air. She was in another world. The void. Here in this vast emptiness, she somehow felt secure and safe. There was nothing there to protect her, but there was no one to hurt her either.

She reached to touch the door. Her translucent hand traveled straight through. She walked forward and felt no resistance. Entering the apartment, she was met with a wave of dread. Her foot landed in a small puddle, and she looked down to see the disturbing scene.

The kitchen tiles were splotched and smeared with blood, a dripping trail leading down the hall. Faint red footsteps made a retreat to Dirk’s room. It appeared as though he had been injured and ran inside after a hasty attempt to clean up.

Though she knew that she wasn't supposed to come into contact with Dirk, Roxy couldn’t help but worry. Dirk had a history of pushing himself to the brink of death. He would train and train until it nearly killed him. Roxy’s mind wandered to the darker side of the possibilities, and she feared the worst.

Surely he wouldn’t die so easily, right?

No. She couldn’t think about that right now. She had a job to do.

Being careful to avoid the blood that spotted the floor, Roxy made her way down the hall to Jake’s room. She had only been in there once, and it was for just a brief moment. The bed wasn’t made and he had clothes on the floor, shoved into a corner that she assumed was meant to be a laundry pile.

She grabbed his phone and glasses off the nightstand. He had almost ten missed calls from Jane. One from Dirk. She checked to see if he had left a message, but there was nothing. She placed the items in her bag, making sure to grab the glasses case as well.

Jake had said most of what she was looking for would be hidden away in the back of his closet, which was small and cluttered with books and DVDs. She saw the golden fabric peeking from behind a box and pulled it free. The winged crest had a faint, rusty carmine stain that she assumed to be blood that hadn’t washed out. She folded it up and put it in her bag, along with the rest of the garment and his revolver. She made sure to grab a box of ammunition.

As she double checked everything and began making her way out, she stopped by Dirk’s door. He was talking to someone.

“You miss her, don’t you?” they asked. It was the auto-responder. A chill ran down her spine as she realized who it was referring to.

Dirk mumbled something she couldn’t quite understand.

“Remember that choice I gave you?” AR asked. “Is it in the back of your mind, rotting there, or have you already made your decision?” Dirk was silent. “You can’t spare them both. No matter what happens, one of them must die.”

What was he talking about? What kind of choice had Dirk been given?

“You know Roxy has heroism in her blood,” AR said. “She may have been born on our side, but as you can see, she’ll just as easily play for the other team. If she gets in the way, you’ll have to kill her. Can you do that?”

“I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, but if things don’t go as planned, I’ll have no choice.”

Roxy gasped, quickly covering her mouth in fear that he had heard her. She pressed herself flat against the wall as Dirk opened the door and stepped out into the hall. He had bloody gauze on his side. His hair was pulled back to expose the scarring wound on his head. The stitches were gone, cut out as Jake had said, and the area around the cut was red and inflamed. It had gotten worse.

“Somebody’s here,” AR said. “Reveal yourself, traitor.” Dirk looked around, his eyes lingering on where she stood for a few seconds. He seemed to be staring straight at her.

“Hello, Roxy,” it greeted her in a sinister tone. “No need to hold your breath. I know you’re here.”

How did AR know? Could it sense her presence? Maybe it didn’t know and was just trying to find out who she was, trying to get a reaction out of her. Maybe it was just playing the usual mind games. She hoped that was the case.

“Roxy? Is that really you?” Dirk asked. His voice grew soft. “Where are you?” His bleary eyes were still locked on hers, as if he knew she was there. “I miss you.”

Roxy wanted to say something. She wanted to reach out to him, but something held her back. She glanced up at Dirk one last time before turning away.

“You don’t need her anyway,” she heard AR say as she made her way out. The words hit her like a brick, and as soon as she was out the door, she started to cry.

Chapter Text

The Prince was not one to engage in extravagant battles. He’d always preferred to lie low and keep the witnesses to a minimum. As long as he had his opponent alone, it was virtually impossible for them to defeat him. He hid in the shadows, always ready to strike with military precision.

His case with the Page had proven more complicated than he had once thought. There were many variables that put him at a disadvantage, but the same went for the Page. They were both up against their greatest weakness, but the Prince had found a way to tip the scales.

So long as everything went according to his plan, the Prince would have the Maid in the palm of his hand. It was a stretch, but the concept was fairly simple. He was going to lure her in with the one thing she cared about most: family.

The Maid was one of the few heroes with a mortal parent, a guardian he could easily kill. Her father had no power, no protection, and no clue. He was the perfect ransom.

Dirk wasn't about to go and kill a pitiful mortal for a mere ransom. He had other ideas.

He stood outside the hospital at which Jane worked, a knife at his side in case he ran into trouble. He watched for someone he could use for his plan.

A woman in scrubs stepped out to take a smoke. She would have to do. Dirk approached her as she lit her cigarette and took a drag.

“Excuse me, could I ask you a favor?”

“Huh?” The nurse looked over at him. Her expression changed when she saw the blade in his hand. She backed away. “What do you want?” As Dirk stepped closer, she reached for her purse and took out her wallet. “Do you want money? Take it! Just don't come any closer!”

“I don't want your money,” he said. “I need you to make a call. And as long as you do what I say, I won't hurt you.”

--

Jane was worried. Roxy had seemed shaken up after she went back to the apartment. She had assured them that everything went according to plan, but Jane could sense her unrest. When she got back, she looked like she had seen a ghost. She dropped her bag onto the counter and retreated to the guest room without another word. When morning came and Roxy still didn’t show, Jane decided she needed to find out what was wrong.

“Roxy?” Jane called, knocking on the door. “Are you awake?” There was no answer. She tried the knob and it opened. The lights were out and the curtains were drawn.

Roxy rolled over with a groan. “What time is it?” She checked the clock on the nightstand. “What the hell, Jane? It's so early! Why have you forsaken me?”

“Did he see you?”

“What?” She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Dirk,” Jane said. “When you went over there, did he see you?”

Roxy wasn't sure whether she should've told the truth or kept AR’s all-seeing eyes a secret. Frankly, she wasn't sure if she was ever really caught. It could've just been another trick by AR to screw them over. It certainly wouldn't be out of character.

“No,” she lied. “Why?”

“I don't know,” Jane confessed. “You just seemed on edge. I thought that maybe something had gone wrong.”

“I'm fine,” she insisted. “I mean, I still care about him, so when I saw that he was injured, I almost blew my cover.”

“He was hurt?”

“Yeah, there was a lot of blood,” she recalled, her voice growing soft. “I stayed away, though. I didn't want to get caught up in his business again.”

“Well, you made the right choice,” Jane said. Her phone rang from her pocket. “One second, I should probably take that.” She stood up and went to her own room, closing the door. “Hello?” she answered.

“Hello, uh, is this Jane Crocker?” a woman asked from the other end. Jane recognized her voice but she couldn't quite place it.

“Yes, this is Jane.”

“You need to come to the hospital immediately,” the woman said. “It's your father. He’s fallen ill and we’re not sure if he's going to make it.” There was a long pause. “We figured you would want to see him.”

Jane froze. “I'll be there as soon as possible. Thank you.” She hung up and put her phone back in her pocket. Grabbing her purse and keys, she hurried out of the room.

“Where are you going?” Jake asked when he saw her rush past.

“The hospital,” she said. “It's an emergency. You two stay here.”

“Wait, what happened?” Jake stopped her at the door. “Are they understaffed or-”

“It's my dad. Something's wrong.” She couldn't waste another minute. For all she knew, he could be dying. He was only mortal, after all.

“Jane, are you sure you’re safe to go out alone?” Jake’s tone grew serious. “I mean, with the Prince out for our blood-”

“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. “You’re the one in real danger, Jake. You and Roxy need to be careful.” She pushed past him and walked out the door.

The short drive to the hospital was torturous. Every second at a red light felt like hours, and Jane knew every minute wasted could be her father’s last. She drove recklessly, but she didn’t care about her own safety. It didn’t matter if she ended up in a hospital bed next to him. She just had to get there.

She pulled into the back parking lot so she could get in without passing through the ER. The lot was oddly desolate except for a few cars that belonged to her coworkers. A lit cigarette lay on the ground in front of her. She snuffed it out with her heel and threw it into a nearby ashtray.

She took out the keys she carried for emergencies. The door didn’t budge.

“Huh, that’s weird,” she thought aloud, trying the key again. “This one usually works. I guess I’ll have to walk around to the front.” She put the keys back in her purse and began on her way around the building.

She had an eerie feeling she was being followed. She stopped in her tracks, listening for footsteps.

“Hello, Jane,” a voice whispered in her ear, bringing a knife to her neck. “I see you've fallen for my little trap. It's just as I expected.” A hand covered her mouth. “Scream and I'll slit your throat.”

She recognized the voice as none other than the Prince of Heart. She’d been tricked.

“I hope you don’t mind taking a little detour.”

Chapter Text

It had been almost 24 hours since Jake last heard from Jane. He was beginning to worry. Her sudden call to the hospital had seemed off in a way. Something wasn't right.

Jane’s father was very healthy for his age. He had the manners of an old man, but the vitality of a twenty-year-old. Jake couldn't remember the last time he even carried the common cold, much less a serious illness.

Even if he was sick, why would she insist on going alone, especially so close to the solstice? They only had a few hours now, and there wasn't a single word from the maid.

Maybe he was just overthinking it, but the details didn't seem to make sense to him.

His phone rang. It was Jane.

“Jane! I was so worried!” he answered in a rush. “You never called, and I thought something had gone wrong! Are you okay? How's your dad?”

He could hear shaky breathing on the other end. Another voice seemed to be whispering to her, “Answer it.”

“Jake, I’m fine,” she said, though her voice sounded unsure.

“Where are you?”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “I’m at the hospital.” The deeper voice in the background said something Jake couldn’t make out. “I had my phone off, sorry.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have let you go out alone,” Jake muttered. “Jane, tell me the truth. Is there a sword at your throat right now?” Jane was silent. The Prince had probably gotten ahold of her. This was bad news. “May I speak with your kidnapper for a moment?” He heard the phone trade hands and Jane mumbling through a newly tied gag. The sound of scraping metal sent a shiver down his spine.

“You’re a lot smarter than when we first started,” Dirk said on the other line. The sound of his voice hit like a ton of bricks. “You know, I kind of miss when you were clueless. It was a lot more fun that way.”

“Shut up,” Jake said through grit teeth. “What have you done with her? Where is she?”

“Relax, Jake,” he said. “Your little Maid is fine. I haven’t hurt a hair on her pretty little head—well, at least not physically. Psychological torment is still allowed, right?” He let out a chuckle and sighed. “Oh, how I wish I could see the look on your face right now. Anyway, I’m sure you know the deal by now. As long as you meet me at our designated time—sundown, of course—I’ll leave her be. If you don’t show...well, you’ll see. I promise it won’t be pleasant.”

The call ended with a click.

“Was that Jane?” Roxy asked, standing in the doorway to his room. “Is she okay?”

Jake couldn't believe he had let this happen. They should’ve been more careful. He should've gone with her.

But if he had tagged along, would he be captured too? Surely the Prince wouldn't let him slip away unscathed, let alone a witness to his crime.

He looked over at Roxy, unsure how to explain. She looked so worried, he thought she would cry.

“Jake, is she coming back?” she asked.

“No,” Jake said solemnly. “It was a trap.”

“You mean…” her voice faltered. Jake bowed his head. “Jake, we have to save her!”

“We can’t,” he said. “He won’t let us anywhere near her until dusk.”

“But what if he’s ” Roxy was terrified. She knew Dirk wouldn’t just simply let Jane go. Her life came at a steep price, and if that ransom wasn’t paid, he would kill her. The only way to save Jane was to take her place.

“We can only hope that's not the case.” Jake checked the clock. They had three hours at most. If they couldn't save Jane before then, the least they could do was prepare. “Do you know if Dirk has any plans?” he asked. “He mentioned some sort of machine. Do you have any idea what that could be?”

Roxy’s expression hardened. “He’s bringing out the bots. This isn't good.” She had seen those robots tear heroes limb from limb. No man stood a chance against the destructive machines. “I don't know if he'll dig up the old ones, but I know he's been working on something—something big .”

Jake froze. He had watched Dirk build the very weapon he would use against him. He remembered what Dirk had said. It could kill him in seconds. If he even managed to survive a minute with the thing, he would be in for one hell of a fight. No bullets would pierce its titanium chest plate.

As the sun traveled across the sky and the light grew dim, the fear settled to the pit of Jake’s stomach. Tonight he faced what could possibly be his last battle, and it felt as though he had already lost.

Three streets were uncharacteristically empty, flickering street lamps giving way to the grim night. The occasional innocent shadow leaked across the roadway, quickly retreating into a locked building. Jake heard the faint, tinny sounds of a nightclub at the end of the poorly-lit block, and the hiss of the music faded into a grainy wash that filled the street, seeping into the darkness between the pools of light on the dirty sidewalk.

Jake looked up to see a young girl hiding behind a corner. She hid when they made eye contact. She peeked out again as he walked towards her.

“What are you doing out here all alone,” he asked the girl. “It’s awfully late. Shouldn’t you be home?” She stepped out nervously and held out a crumpled notebook page scribbled in yellow crayon. “Oh, is this one of your drawings? It’s…” He trailed off as he saw the wings of hope outlined in gold.

“It’s for you,” she said, handing him the sheet. “I want to be a hero like you someday.” The sparkle in her eyes alluded to him that she did not know the truth about heroism. It suddenly faded and she looked beyond Jake, backing away in fear.

Jake turned at the sound of heavy metal footsteps. His heart dropped in his chest at the sight. The machine before him was a work of art, elaborate plated armour layered over its chest and shoulders. It’s eyes shined bright red through a pair of carmine tinted glasses. It stood with a katana rested on its shoulder, waiting.

He turned back to the little girl. “I need you to be brave,” he said. “Can you do that for me?” She nodded. “Get as far away from here as possible, somewhere safe. Run as fast as your legs can carry you.” The girl nodded and ran off.

“Let’s make this quick and easy,” Jake said, turning back to face the robot.

“Of course,” it agreed, its voice monotone, yet sinister all the same. “I would hate to waste your last precious moments on this wretched planet.”

Chapter Text

The Prince watched his target from the rooftop, following his every move. The Page had held up surprisingly well against his creation, and he began to worry that it would be destroyed in vain. He would hate to put such valuable materials to waste.

“Why are you still holding back?” AR asked. “You cannot let the Page walk away unscathed. He needs the physical and psychological damage that our machine is capable of bringing.”

“I have to let him think he's winning,” Dirk explained. “He's very cocky, as you may have noticed. Small victories often go to his head, causing him to take unnecessary risks and, consequently, make rookie mistakes. I have a reason for everything, many of which you will not understand.” He had specific plans for his last dance with the Page of Hope, and as long as time was on his side, there was no way he could fail.

The robot grabbed Jake by the neck and hoisted him up against the wall, slamming his head on the bricks.

“Are you going to let him choke?” AR asked, picking up the signals from Dirk’s clenched fist.

“Hold him there,” Dirk said. “Let him figure out how to escape.” He had three minutes at most before he would lose consciousness.

Jake couldn't breathe. The cold metal grip around his throat was suffocating. He tried to pry away its fingers, but they wouldn't give.

“I thought you were stronger than this,” it sneered, raising him higher. “Didn't you learn from your past mistakes?”

Jake grit his teeth. This was nothing but a game to the Prince—child’s play.

Two can play at this game , he thought, grabbing onto the metal arm. He drove the heel of his boot into its chest, throwing them both down to the ground.

The Prince was pleasantly surprised. He hadn't expected such a direct approach.

“Are you sure you don't want to crank it up a notch?” AR asked as Jake threw punches at the robot’s head and chest, leaving dents in the outside structure.

“Do you not trust my plan? I think it's quite brilliant,” he said. Jake had torn away the thick bulletproof plating. Dirk checked the timer on his watch. “Perfect. Right on schedule.”

“I've got you now!” Jake shouted as he whipped out his pistol. He shot through the robot’s chest, but was blasted back by an eruption of gas and shrapnel. It billowed around him in a cloud of black soot, burning his eyes, nose, and lungs. As he stumbled away, every wheezing breath fanned the flames.

The battery , he thought, cursing himself for being so foolish. He should've known it would explode.

“Do you really think a single bullet will bring me to my knees?” the robot taunted, its heavy footsteps dragging behind him. Jake turned to see the smoking figure cloaked in ash. “I'm invincible.”

“We’ll see about that,” Jake said, raising the gun once more. He aimed for the battery and fired, the smoke thickening around him as the flames rose. The robot’s charred head fell at his feet.

He'd managed to survive, but this was only half of the battle.

--

Roxy knew she wasn't supposed to follow Jake. She knew she was told to stay away from the fight, but she just couldn't stand by and watch. Jane was in trouble, and she had to do something about it.

For the second time this week, she was suing her powers against the person who had taught her to harness them.

The Prince sat perched on the ledge, looking down onto the street below, where Jake was caught in a struggle with the robot. He looked like a completely different person, a permanent scowl stuck on his face. He would occasionally mumble something to himself, assumably talking to the auto-responder. A cloud of smoke rose after an explosion shook the ground. Roxy wondered if Jake was okay. The slight grin that spread across Dirk’s face wasn't very reassuring.

“I guess it's time to set the scene,” Dirk said, walking towards the stairwell doors. He returned carrying Jane, who looked as if she had been dragged through hell and back. She was gagged and blindfolded, her hands tied at her back. Roxy wanted to call out to her, but she knew she had to stay hidden.

Dirk set her down against a wall and forced her to stand. “If you move,” he said, “I'll kill you in a heartbeat.” He turned as he heard Jake climbing up over the ledge. “It took you long enough.

This was her chance. Roxy peaked out from her hiding place and faded into the void. She made her way over to where Jane leaned against the bricks.

“Jane,” she whispered, pulling back the blindfold. “Jane, it’s me, Roxy. If you can hear me, blink three times.”

Jane did so, and looked around, but saw no sign of Roxy. She gasped as a pair of hands untied the gag around her mouth.

“Where are you?” she asked. “I can’t see you.”

“I’m right here,” Roxy assured her. “I’m gonna get you out of here.”

Meanwhile, tensions rose between the Page and the Prince.

“I gave my half of the deal,” Jake shouted, aiming his pistol at the Prince’s head. “Now hand her over!”

“Oh, about that deal,” the Prince said. “If you wish for me to release the maid, I expect something—or some one —in return.”

“What is there left for me to give you?” Jake asked. “I've already given you everything, Dirk. I gave you my time, my trust— I gave you my heart —and you decided that it wasn't good enough, that you didn't want it anymore.”

“That's not true at all,” he said, “In all honesty, I would want nothing more in this world than to be with you, but I’m afraid fate brought us together, and it will tear us apart.” For a moment, his empty expression appeared almost mournful, but quickly morphed back into a glare of pure evil. “If you wish to save your friend, you must accept your fate. That’s a hero’s job, right? To sacrifice oneself for the safety of another.”

“You promised that you would spare her,” Jake said.

“I never promised anything.” Dirk said, channeling an orb of energy in his palm. “Besides, I never really liked Jane. Always meddling in my business. She never knew when to stop digging.” His eyes shot to the left where Jane had somehow freed herself from the bindings. “Where do you think you’re going?” She froze.

“Jane, run!” Jake shouted, lunging for the Prince. He held his arms back, but a sharp elbow to the gut sent him doubling over on his knees.

“You should know better than to get in my way, Page,” he muttered, kicking him aside. He turned back to Jane, who was still paralyzed in fear. Sparks flew from his fingertips, power begging to be set free.

A bolt of blinding light shot from his hands, coiling around its victim like a snake. Her blood-curdling screams echoed over the city as a figure began to manifest in the chaos. The pain she felt was unlike any other. Every sad memory, every tear, and every heartbreak tore her apart from the inside out. Every pulse of energy drained her own as her soul was forced to retreat.

It rose into the air as it left her body, and with one final blow, disintegrated into millions of tiny particles.

As the dust settled, Dirk’s heart stopped. The ashes falling into his hands sparkled a bright rosy pink, fading into a drained mauve.

“Roxy?” Dirk looked over  at her lifeless body, then at his guilty hands, power still coursing through his fingertips. He couldn't believe what he had just done.

“She betrayed you,” AR said. “She deserved it.”

Chapter Text

Dirk had felt his fair share of heartbreak, but nothing compared to the sinking feeling in his chest as the pink dust fell from his hands like grains of sand. It felt as though his own soul had shriveled up and died.

He realized it had been that way all along. The only reason he could be so cruel—so heartless —was because he’d already destroyed himself. The moment he watched the Knight fall, his own sword piercing his chest, he underwent a dangerous transformation. He gained a motive—or a false sense of reason, at least. His only reason to carry on living was revenge. He was so caught up with the concept, he never stopped to see that perhaps it was his own fault, that he was the one that deserved punishment.

Even so, his instinct begged him to take his anger out on everyone he came into contact with, even his best friend.

This anger he held inside of him had killed her.

He felt their eyes on him, in shock and horror. Their stares burned into his back, only driving the guilt deeper into his heart.

Jake and Jane were knelt at Roxy’s side, listening for a heartbeat that they would never hear.

“Jane,” Jake said, “get out of here. Take Roxy with you. It isn't safe for you here.”

“But—”

“I have to fight him alone,” he said. “It's the only way to make sure nobody else gets hurt.”

“What if you get hurt?” She was on the brink of tears. “I can't lose you too.”

“You won't,” he assured her. He heard the metal scrape of an unsheathed sword. “Just go. I'll be back, I promise.”

“Are you done yet?” the Prince asked. His harsh glare shone a familiar raging crimson. He seemed awfully composed for someone who had just killed their partner in cold blood.

Jake turned back, and Jane had already retreated down the fire escape. He looked up at the news helicopters hovering overhead. They must've heard the explosion.

“Have you already forgotten our rules?”

Jake whipped around to find a sword at his throat. He tried to back up, but was soon met with the edge of the roof. He was cornered.

“Never turn your back,” he whispered, pressing the blade dangerously close. A wicked smirk stretched across his face. “You make this far too easy. Why don’t I give you another chance? Perhaps you’ll learn from your mistakes for once.” He stepped back, and Jake noticed a slight limp on his left. The Prince seemed to follow his eyes.

“You won’t get away with this,” Jake muttered.

“Watch me.”

He viciously slashed through the air, leaving no room for his opponent’s error. Jake couldn’t move fast enough as the tip of the blade grazed his chest. He stumbled back, blood beginning to seep through his shirt.

The Prince swung again and again, grazing his shoulder, slicing his cheek, and catching on his arm as he desperately tried to block. Jake felt himself growing weaker, every blow tearing away at him until it all seemed to halt, as if time had stopped. Everything was silent, unusually calm.

“Any last words, Page?” the Prince asked, holding the sword’s tip only centimeters away from Jake’s throat. His voice didn’t sound human. It was more of a robotic monotone, without empathy; without a soul.

“What happened to you?” Jake asked, disgusted by his behaviour. “When I met you, I never would’ve known that you would lie and cheat your way into my arms, only to walk away once it became inconvenient for you. Maybe, just maybe, I could’ve forgiven you, but you waited far too long to tell me the truth. Now look at what you've done! You’ve gone and killed the one person that cared about you the most. Have you no remorse?”

He couldn’t believe he had ever loved such a heartless person.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Dirk lowered his sword. “If I had told the truth, it would’ve ruined my plan.”

“A good man would be honest, no matter how painful the truth was. Only a coward hides behind lies and deceit. You’re nothing but a petty coward, Prince.”

“Well, aren’t you quite the talker,” he taunted, stepping back . “But do you mean what you say? Or are you the coward, my dear Page?”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Jake said, holding the gun out in front of him.

“Then shoot.”

And shoot he did. Jake closed his eyes and let the bullet fly. He opened them again to see the Prince standing across from him with a smirk, two halves of smoking lead in the palm of his gloved hand.

Jake stared in shock. “How did you do that?!”

“Kevlar gloves and a very sharp katana. Would you perhaps like to try again?” he asked, a mocking tone in his voice. He spread out his arms to make for an easy target. “Come on, hit me with your best shot. I bet that you never miss.”

Gritting his teeth, he shot again, this time firing lower at his abdomen. He watched as his foe sliced the steel bullets in two. It infuriated him. He charged at the Prince, dodging his sword and tackling him to the ground. His weapon fell and skittered out of reach

For a moment, he seemed surprised, but the Prince’s smirk soon returned to its rightful place. “That’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “Defend yourself; fight back; be aggressive for once in your life, Jake. If you hold back, I’ll just be throwing you around all night like a ragdoll, and that isn’t very fun.” He felt himself slipping out of character, but he tried to keep his composure.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you,” Jake muttered, his gun aimed at the Prince’s chest. Beyond his external bravery, he was terrified, his hands visibly shaking.

“I can’t,” Dirk sighed, staring down the barrel. “I ruined your life. I destroyed everything you loved. I deserve it. You might as well kill me before I can hurt anyone else”

He couldn't fight back anymore. He didn't want to. If anything happened to Jake, he would be left completely alone. He'd already caused enough destruction. He had to end this before AR took over again and turned him into that heartless monster. He had to stop this madness once and for all.

“Are you serious?”

“Jake,” he said, lowering his voice. “Kill me.” Jake watched his red eyes fade to the oh-so-familiar amber.

He had a feeling that this wasn't the Prince talking.

As much as Jake wished he had the guts to shoot, he knew that once he did, he would regret it. He had told himself that he was over Dirk, but he hadn’t actually gotten the chance to comprehend what had happened. All these emotions were bottled up inside of him like a dam on the verge of bursting. One crack would flood his entire world.

He could only imagine the disastrous effects of a bullet hole.

“I...I can’t.”

“Jake, you have to.” Dirk grabbed onto the gun, his thumb on the trigger. “Kill me. Please. Just get it over with.” If he was going to die, he wanted it to be quick. As much as he deserved a slow, painful death, he didn't want to face his defeat. He didn't want to lie there in a pool of his own blood, looking back on every mistake he made.

“Why?” Jake whispered. “Why does it have to end like this? There has to be another way.”

“The only way to end this is to pull that trigger,” he said. “If I die, everything goes back to normal. I’ll give you permission to forget I ever existed.”

“But I can’t,” Jake said. “Not everyone can just wipe their brain whenever they choose. I'm not like you. I can't forget.”

“I didn't choose this,” Dirk said. “I didn’t want it to end like this, but I’m choosing to let you live. Just kill me before I change my mind.”

“It's not fair!” Jake cried, holding back tears.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you?” Dirk whispered. “Nothing’s fair in love and war, Jake.”

He pulled the trigger.

The shot rang in Jake’s ears as it tore through the Prince’s chest, burning through cloth and flesh. Jake felt the blood splatter on his face. Wheezing for breath, Dirk clutched his hand over his heart.

Dirk felt his lungs fill with a thick liquid. It rushed up his throat and coated his mouth with its familiar metallic taste. The reality of death began to close in as he coughed up blood. He sucked in one more agonizing breath.

“Jake...I…”

“D-Dirk?” Jake stammered, his hands shaking. There was no answer. “No...no, you can't die.” Dirk’s garment stained red as the color drained from his face.

Just.

Judgement seemed to hesitate.

Heroic.

Jake removed his shades. His eyes were glossed over, lifeless, yet somehow full of emotion. Fear. Anger. Sadness.

Love.

 

Chapter Text

Derse buried the Prince of Heart in a shallow grave, under the same soil as the fallen Knight. There was no funeral, just another shrug of failure from the people. It was quite a pathetic way to honor the dead, given that burial was supposedly reserved for the best of the best. The rest were burned.

Jake thought it was disgusting.

All he had left of Dirk was his glasses. Of Roxy, there was nothing but dust and the haunting memory of her screams. Jane had carried her to her deathbed on Prospit, in fear than she would be taken by the Dersite agents that dragged Dirk away. They didn’t want her to be treated so terribly.

However, as dreadful as Derse was, it couldn't compare to the corrupt inner workings of Prospit.

What used to be a familiar place to call home became something far from it. Prospit’s golden glow seemed to have dulled since his last visit, and the people had mixed expressions. Some welcomed them with celebration. Others gave a confused glance, as if they didn't belong here. Jake heard whispers from veterans and their apprentices.

“Jane,” Jake said as they made their way down the stone paved roads, “why are they all staring at us like that?”

“It's because you're covered in blood,” she explained grimly. “They all know you fought the Prince. They probably trying to figure out what happened.”

Jake looked down at his dirty uniform. The stark white wings were stained with blood, a thin slash in the fabric running across his chest. He knew this blood was not his own, and his heart ached every time he caught a glimpse of it.

He still felt as though there was another reason the people were avoiding them.

“C’mon, let's just hurry to the palace,” Jane said. She was beginning to notice the stares as well.

The crowd in the gathering hall was silent as they entered through the large heavy doors. The high ceilings felt emptier than usual, and a cool draft from the gate sent a shiver down Jake’s spine. The atmosphere was anything but welcoming, yet they moved onward. They would face their praise or punishment with dignity, as a hero should.

Jake and Jane kneeled as they reached the golden runner.

“You may rise,” the king said. “Page of Hope, you know why we brought you and the Maid here today. You saved your homeland from destruction at the hands of the Prince of Heart, Derse’s most valuable weapon.”

Hearing Dirk referred to as a “weapon” made Jake sick to his stomach.

“By defeating the Prince of Heart, you have proven yourself to be quite the hero,” said the queen. “We award your act of valor with the ultimate honor.”

He was presented with a golden medal. It hung heavy around his neck, like guilt.

“Congratulations, Page of Hope. You are a true hero.” There was a faint applause before the people were silenced.

“No,” Jake said, staring down to at the shiny pendant. “I'm no hero. I don't deserve this.” He threw the medal down. There was a collective gasp from the crowd.

“Why do you say that? Did you not defeat the Prince of Heart?”

“A hero’s purpose is to save people,” he said. “I didn't manage save a single soul but my own.” Roxy...Dirk...he could've prevented their deaths. He could've sacrificed himself and died a hero. He could've stopped the Prince before he even had the chance to act.

He could've done so much more, but he was too afraid.

He was no hero. He was a coward.

“I refuse to accept this title, for I don't believe I deserve it,” he said. “The real hero is lying dead on the battlefield . The real hero was the Dersite Rogue, Roxy Lalonde. She was braver than all of us combined. She stood up to the Prince and sacrificed her life to save us. If it weren't for the Rogue, we would be dead!”

“What is your proposal?” the King questioned. “Do you expect us to honor a villain?”

“She wasn't a villain,” Jake said. “She was a hero, and I want her to be treated as one. She deserves a proper burial, a memorial of some sort.”

“We shall do as you wish, Page,” said the Queen, rising from her place. “If you insist that this girl saved your life, than we shall honor her as one of our own. Show us where she lies, and we will obey your request.”

Roxy was buried in a Prospitian robe, her grave amongst some of the greatest heroes. She deserved better while she was alive, but at the very least, she was respected in death.

--

Despite Jane’s orders to avoid it at all costs, Jake returned to the apartment. He didn’t plan to stay long—he was just grabbing a few things that he would need until they could work things out with the landlord—but once he stepped through the door, he was hit with a wave of remorse.

They’d spent so much time together here, and now he was gone.

Jake had promised himself he wouldn’t cry, but as he curled up in Dirk’s sheets, the tears flowed down his cheeks in a steady stream.

“He’s dead, Jake,” a voice spoke. “He’s not coming back.” It was the auto-responder, still hooked into his belt.

Jake remembered what Roxy had said, how AR had taken control of Dirk’s mind and forced him to do all these terrible things.

“This is all your fault,” he croaked, pulling the shades out. He wiped the tears from his face as if it could even see him. “You did this.”

“How so?”

“You made him evil,” Jake said, sitting up. “You screwed with his head and made him commit these heinous crimes!

“That is where you are mistaken,” AR said. “He had full control of whether or not I were to interfere. He could’ve stopped himself if he desired to do so.”

“You’re lying,” Jake forced out.

“If I had been in control, you would be the one rotting in a shallow grave. All of this was a part of his little plan. He could’ve just left you alone. He could’ve just pretended you were dead like the reporters said. He could’ve given you a normal life. He could’ve given you what you wanted, but he never cared about what you wanted. All he cared about was himself, how the world would see him, how they would remember him, and how they would shudder in fear at the mere mention of his name. He never gave two shits about your pitiful feelings.”

Its words stung like salt in a wound, but Jake knew it was just messing with him, trying to get inside his head.

“Face it, Jake. He was just using you. You were nothing but another one of his pawns.”

“Dirk wouldn’t do that,” Jake tried to assure himself.

“Yes, he would.” AR shot him down like a dove in hunting season. “He used Jane. He used Roxy. What makes you think he would leave you out?”

“He...he loved me,” Jake sobbed.

“How do you know that wasn’t just another lie?” AR asked. “He lied about a lot of things.”

“I…” Jake didn’t know what to say.

“Checkmate.”

Jake snapped the glasses in half, stomping on them with the heel of his boot.

Chapter Text

Jake soon realized his fit of rage would be something he’d come to regret, as the auto-responder was the last piece of Dirk he had—albeit the worst part. What if there was something on there left specifically for him?

He salvaged the main hard drive, relieved it hadn’t been terribly damaged. He plugged it into Dirk’s computer and watched the screen fill with complex codes and numbers he didn’t understand. The endless scrolling halted to show Dirk’s desktop. There were many applications and folders sorted alphabetically, but one stood out in the middle of the screen, marked, “goodbye.” Jake clicked on it.

An audio recording began to play, static mixing with distant traffic. He heard a few deep breaths, and then Dirk started to speak.

“If you're hearing this,” he said, his voice distorted by the noise of the microphone, “I'm likely dead. I hope I didn't make such an impact on your life that this breaks your heart like it did mine.”

Jake’s heart sank.

“To be honest, I'm not sure why I'm recording this. Perhaps I'll torture myself with it later. Who knows, maybe I'll just destroy it, but for now, I just need to get this out there.

“I, Dirk Strider, the Prince of Heart, whatever you see me as now, am a liar. I’m selfish. Heartless. I deserve suffering and death. I don't deserve love. And I don’t deserve to be forgiven, but I’m apologizing anyway.

To who? I guess that’s determined by whoever ends up finding this. Maybe no one will, but to whoever’s listening, I’m sorry for any inconveniences I may have caused you.

Jake, if you’re hearing this, it’s for you.”

Before Jake realized it, a tear had rolled down his cheek. He couldn’t believe it. When had Dirk recorded this? It had to be recent, right? There was no way he had planned this so far ahead.

“You’re probably wondering why I did what I did, why I lied for so long, only to tell the truth once it was already too late. To be honest, I don’t know why. There were so many other things I could’ve done to prevent this, but I was too caught up in my own pathetic problems to even consider them. I'm sure AR has spewed his lies, making you despise me even more, but please, just give me a chance to explain.”

There was a long pause. Jake held his breath.

“I loved you. For three long years, I loved you. I know it didn't seem like it in the end, but I lied because I loved you. I lied because I wanted you to love me too. I knew you would never love a criminal like me, so I painted myself as a hero. When I found out you were the Page...I was heartbroken. I didn't think it was fair that the one person I had learned to love turned out to be the enemy. For a second, I thought it was supposed to be some kind of sign that maybe you weren't the one. For just a moment, I told myself I would stop loving you. I guess it was easier said than done. Even now, as I lay here in a pool of my own blood, unable to die, I love you. It's only been hours since you left, but I miss you, and I hate myself for it.

I knew you would never love the Prince, but some part of me was convinced that you could at least love me. When I finally cracked and told you, I found out that I was very wrong. I found out that there truly is no way to win at both love and war. I had to sacrifice one for the other.

Whatever choice I made, I hope you can respect it because there was no way I could’ve prevented the bloodshed, whether it be mine or someone else’s.”

He took a deep breath.

“My battery’s running low, but I just want you to know—whoever you are—I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

The recording ended with a click.

Dumping memory. Please wait , the screen read. Jake watched as not his own life, but Dirk’s flashed before his eyes in a painful slideshow; a first-person view of all he had seemingly forgotten.

“What about him?” Roxy asked, pointing at Jake’s profile. “He’s your age, and he’s cute.”

“Any other redeeming qualities?” Dirk teased, though his eyes lingered on the photo.

The image changed. Dirk was sitting alone, waiting. The doorbell rang.

“Hey, you must be Jake,” he answered. Jake smiled and shook his hand. “Come in, I'll show you around.”

Dirk was with Roxy again, this time at her place. Her smile was hidden behind a glass of red wine.

“So?” she began, raising an eyebrow, “any other ‘redeeming qualities’? You know, besides being hot?”

“Well,” Dirk sighed, “he’s a total dork. He’s already hung up Tomb Raider and Avatar posters in his room.” He laughed. “I guess I can’t really talk since I have my anime shit all over the place.”

Jake looked over at the posters hung on Dirk’s walls. His interests had evolved since then, but there were still remnants of his otaku phase.

He turned his attention back to the screen. He didn’t want to watch, but he felt like he was supposed to. Besides, he didn’t know how to stop it. He just watched the dates in the corner jump creep towards his present. Clips of him and Dirk completing day-to-day mundane activities passed in a blur. Their more recent romance felt prolonged by the scattered footage of loving gazes warm embraces. It seemed as though every interaction they shared had been erased and dumped into this file.

The images were blurred by the tears that streamed down Jake’s cheeks. As the static of an empty tape droned on, he buried himself in Dirk’s sheets. He could still make out the aroma of copper and espresso that he had loved so much. He knew that scent would fade in time, and after that, he would have no living proof.

Jane stood in the doorway, unsure how to handle the situation. She knew Jake would be upset, but she hadn’t expected him to take it so hard. She wished there was a way to make him feel better.

“Jake,” she said, walking over to sit next to him. She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You shouldn't be here. It’s only going to make you feel worse.”

Where else was he supposed to go? No matter where he turned next, he would never be able to escape these memories, this sinking guilty feeling. The weight of death on his shoulders would always drag him down.

“Jake, let’s just go home.,” she said. “To our real home.”

“But this is my real home,” Jake protested. “I don’t want to go back to Prospit. I don’t want to be a hero anymore. I want to live a normal life.” He wanted to build a fire on thr roof and watch his suit burn.

“We’ll never be normal,” Jane said, offering a weak smile, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. Our wounds will heal just like anyone else’s, but it will take time. You just have to be patient and persevere. This isn’t the end.”

Well actually it is. The End.