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Wild Child

Chapter Text

John slumped in his seat on the couch. He'd been watching a Ghostbusters marathon when his father came home and changed the TV to the news. Usually John was fine with it, but interrupting a Ghostbusters marathon! That just wasn't right. So, what was normally a heartwarming moment of father-son bonding was today an episode of John the professional teenage sulker and his uncaring dad.

He didn't even wait for a commercial! John fumed to himself while the TV went on about some local charity drive or something. The volume was low while Dad worked on the crossword, as usual. He's not even really watching it. We could have skipped it for one night.

The charity story ended and another began. A few sentences in, a picture flashed onto the screen. John's dad jumped, then turned the volume up, interrupting John's thoughts.

"... landed on the island, only to find a young woman with a wild dog. Several members of the exploration team were attacked by both the beast and the girl before tranquilizers brought the pair down. Further exploration of the island revealed an outlandish house filled with taxidermied animals, sunbleached photographs of various unknown women, and advanced scientific technology. The greatest discovery, however, was the body of famed explorer and eccentric billionaire Jake Harley, who has been missing for nearly fifteen years. Preliminary reports indicate he's been dead for three to five years. Authorities have taken the young woman into custody and are searching for her nearest kin. If you have any information, please contact the police. Any help will be rewarded. It's hard to imagine that little girl growing up by herself, isnt it?"

The news anchors traded a few sentences about the tragedy of the situation before moving onto a happier, less substantial event. John looked at his dad, who sat back puffing on his pipe thoughtfully. He felt a little uneasy, like something big was about to change in their lives.

After the news, Dad went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. John checked if the Ghostbusters marathon was still going on, but it had finished ten minutes ago. Frustrated, he turned off the television and stomped up to his room. He decided to dick around on the internet until dinner. However, the internet was not in his favor that evening. None of his forum buddies had replied to his posts, there were no new blog posts to read, and none of the webcomics he followed had updated, not even Midnight Crew. It was crazy how ridiculously complicated the story had gotten, even after just a year. The fandom had also exploded after the act featuring the Felt. He wasn't as obsessed with the comic as some people, but he still enjoyed it, even if it was becoming difficult to keep track of all the characters now.

John sighed, at a loss for what to fill his evening with. On a whim, he decided to look up that eccentric explorer from the news. A quick search gave him millions of results, including plenty on his not-so-gruesome death. Surprisingly, although the island had plenty of wild animals, Harley had apparently died of old age. Several articles also discussed the girl that had apparently been living with him, but they didn't have any information the news channel hadn't had. John decided to delve into Harley's background.

Jake Harley had been the head of Betty Crocker Enterprises, explaining where his absurd amounts of money came from. He'd inherited the business from Betty Crocker herself. However, instead of running the business himself, he left control of the company to a board of directors and went exploring instead. Over the years, he had plunged through deserts, jungles, and the deep tundra, constantly on the move.

John flipped through article after article, finding fewer and fewer with any new information. Getting bored again, he was about to stop when he came across a small article about Harley's family. The article included pictures, and one of the women photographed looked very familiar to John.

Where do I know her from? John thought. Is she some movie star or something? He stared at the picture until it suddenly hit him.


"Dad!" John called, running down the stairs and into the kitchen. His dad was straining pasta in the sink, tomato sauce with meatballs simmering on the stove. The smell of garlic bread wafted through the air. John nearly got distracted by the delicious food, but his recent discovery pushed him back on track. "Dad! That guy on the news, was he related to Nanna?"

Dad poured the pasta into a serving bowl, scraping out every strand while he replied. "John, please set the table."

"But Dad-"

"Set the table, John. I'll explain everything over dinner."

"Ugh!" John groaned before getting out the dinner plates. Soon, the food was laid out and the pair sat down to eat. John squirmed as his father said grace, anxious to get answers. As soon as Dad's eyes opened, John started in on his questions. "Was Nanna related to that guy? Does that mean she was related to Betty Crocker? Oh man, does that mean I'm related to the Batterwitch? And what about that girl? Who the heck is she, anyway?"

While John shot off his questions, his dad had served himself and taken a few bites of pasta. He wiped his mouth carefully before answering his son. "Yes, John, my mother was related to that man, and also to Betty Crocker. They had both been adopted by Mrs. Crocker as children and were raised as siblings. However, Mother was disowned and Uncle Harley disappeared, so they fell out of contact with each other. I never met the man, but Mother always spoke well of him." He twirled more spaghetti onto his fork. John was too excited to eat.

"Is that girl related to us, too? Since Mr. Harley was taking care of her, I mean. Oh wow, it's like she's my long-lost cousin or something. Uh, wait, what is she to me, exactly? Is she, like, a cousin five times removed or something? That whole removed thing has always confused me. Are they removed from your family or something? Why would you even use that word?"

"John." Dad finished chewing his food just in time to interrupt John's tangent before it went too far. "I don't know who that girl is. As I said, Mother lost contact with Uncle Harley years before she adopted me, and she never mentioned him having any children, let alone grandchildren. However, I will be contacting the police. If she is related to Uncle Harley, we may be the closest thing she has to family."

John frowned. "Does that mean she'd come to live with us?"

"Quite possibly, yes. If it came to that, I'm sure you'd welcome her into our home with open arms. You're such a hospitable young man. I'm proud of you, my son."

John blushed into his plate and finally spooned out some pasta for himself. It was hard to disagree with his dad when he was obviously so proud. Who knew, maybe having a semi-sister wouldn't be so bad.

The next few weeks passed like usual for John - he went to school, watched his movies, and chatted with his internet friends. However, his dad was entrenched in negotiations for the lost girl's custody. He was on the phone all the time, talking to various Social Service agents about the girl's future and their family relations. Once, he had to travel over a weekend to meet with someone in person, leaving John in the care of a neighbor for a few days. This annoyed John a little, but he understood his dad was trying to do his best for a probable member of the family. Finally, John came home from school one day to find Dad waiting for him.

"We've finally worked out all the legal issues. She'll be coming home next Friday. Her dog will be coming here, as well. They're quite attached, understandably of course."

John dropped his backpack in surprise. "Already? I thought you said it was going to take forever. We don't even have her bedroom ready yet!"

"That's what we'll be doing this weekend."

"Oh, okay. Can I choose the decorations?"

Dad smiled. "We'll choose them together, how does that sound?"


The weekend passed in a flurry of activity, with new furniture moved in and old furniture moved out. The new bedroom was where the study had been - John's dad usually worked at the kitchen table anyway, and the piano was moved into the living room. John and his dad painted the room a forest green, hoping to put the girl at ease with a more familiar color. The two also ended up with a fair amount of paint on themselves due to a friendly father-son paint prank war. The week passed in a blink, and soon Dad was leaving to pick up the new members of their household.

Before he left, Dad sternly warned John, "Remember, son, this girl isn't used to being around other people yet. Don't crowd her when she gets here, or you might regret it."

"Don't worry, Dad, I'll be careful."

"All right, then, I'm off. See you in a few hours, John."

"Bye, Dad." John watched his dad get into the car and drive away. He was meeting the girl's current guardian (a state-provided one) at their headquarters, which was pretty far away. He headed back to his room, but he was too nervous to sit down and do anything, so he ended up pacing back and forth in his room imagining what the pair would be like until he heard his dad's car again. He bounded down the stairs, excited to meet the mysterious girl.

His dad opened the door and stepped through, holding it open for the girl and her dog as a proper gentleman does. She seemed remarkably well-groomed for a wild child. John guiltily realized he'd let his movie-crazed imagination run away from him. She had dark black hair down to the small of her back. Her clothes were a little big on her - they probably came from Goodwill or something. Her hand rested on the scruff of her dog's neck, a huge white dog of unknown breed. At least, John couldn't tell what breed he was - dog breeds were not something he'd ever cared about. The pair seemed highly alert, both peering around and sniffing at their new environment. John blinked - yes, the girl was definitely sniffing. Dad hadn't been kidding when he said the girl wasn't like normal people. Speaking of Dad, he closed the door behind the girl and dog, causing both to jump a little. John came forward, grinning easily. Dad introduced them to each other.

"Jade, this is my son John. He'll be helping you adjust to living here. John, this is Jade, and this is Bec." His dad waved to the dog, who regarded the strange humans warily. John walked forward and offered his hand to the girl.

"Hi, Jade! Welcome to your new home!"

Jade looked at his hand in confusion, then his face. She made no move to offer her hand in return. John's smile faltered. This is going to be more difficult than I thought.

Chapter Text

The first week, John barely noticed Jade was even there. There were some problems with personal space (Jade and Bec did not like to be touched), Dad took some time off work, and Jade always ate dinner with them, but otherwise John's life wasn't any different. Jade wasn't even in the house most of the time he was home - after making sure she understood the dangers of speeding cars, Dad let her and Bec wander the neighborhood whenever they wanted. It only took getting locked out once for Jade to remember her housekey at night.

However, their first Sunday together taught everyone plenty of lessons. Before Jade, Sunday mornings were relaxed - a large pancake breakfast before heading off to church. Jade complicated things. John hadn't thought she would, but Saturday night, after dinner, his dad began to explain just how much things were going to change.

"Son," he'd said after settling in front of the television and putting on the news, "I understand that our usual Sundays together are important to you, but in light of our recent addition to the family, I hope you'll understand when I say we won't be going to church tomorrow."

John, who'd sat next to him to start his homework, was floored. "What? No way, we go to church every Sunday! Why should we skip tomorrow?"

"Because Jade has barely gotten used to just being around the two of us, let alone an entire congregation of strangers. I think it would be best for everyone if we simply stayed home this week, let her acclimate herself to our lives a little more, and see if she would be prepared to go the following week."

"Okay, okay, I get why we shouldn't bring Jade with us, but why can't we just leave her at home and go ourselves?"

That earned John a disapproving look from his father. "I'm sure you didn't suggest we leave a young girl who's just been removed from anything familiar in her life to her own devices simply because you don't want to break tradition."

"Well, I mean..." John looked away, unable to stand the look on his dad's face. "It's not like she really needs us anyway, right? You let her go wandering around the neighborhood whenever she wants, so how's it any different if we're at home or not?"

"John, I let Jade walk around the neighborhood alone because I know that she knows that I am here if, God forbid, there were any sort of emergency. Why else do you think I took a vacation from work for the last week?"

"Can't we just bring Jade with us? I'm sure she'll be fine," John pleaded. "She can even bring Bec along, right? Mr. Jense takes his dog every week and no one minds."

John's dad thought for a few moments, while John put on his most convincing face. He wasn't any good at it, but Colonel Sassacre had an entire chapter devoted to the topic, so he was sure he'd get the hang of it eventually. Finally, Dad nodded.

"Since you are so passionate about this, we'll give it a try. I just hope Jade is ready." He stood and stretched. "I'm going to try and explain things to her, feel free to watch whatever you'd like - " John lunged for the remote, " - after you have finished your homework for the weekend." Grumbling, John returned to his schoolwork. He couldn't stay upset for long, though - his Sunday was saved.

The next morning, John learned that opening Jade's door without knocking would give him a faceful of growling Bec. It also gave him a lump on his head from hitting the cabinet. His dad was sympathetic but stern ("If we expect them to knock before entering our rooms, it's only courteous to do the same in return."), and Jade still wasn't awake. Dad had explained the night before, but the concepts of clocks and alarms were apparently still foreign to her. Sighing, John prepared himself for the second round.

Another lesson: shaking Jade awake was a VERY BAD IDEA. Dad had carefully put Bec outside in between flipping pancakes, so he didn't have to worry about the canine, but Jade was dangerous enough on her own. As soon as his hand touched her shoulder, she tackled him to the ground and growled in his face.

John groaned. "Morning, Jade. Dad's making pancakes. Also I think you're crushing my liver, unless that's not a thing you can crush. You're definitely crushing something. Could you, uh, get off me? Please?"

Jade blinked at him, then moved off and sat on the floor next to him, looking contrite and sleepy. John sat up - at least he hadn't hit his head this time - and smiled at her. He kept it closed-mouthed as best he could (another lesson he'd learned early on), but his buckteeth snuck out there anyway. "Are you hungry? Because I am famished, and I think Dad just finished another stack." John stood and offered his hand. Like the first day, she looked at him in confusion. He carefully reached for her hand (never grab at Jade or Bec too quickly) and grasped it before softly tugging her up. She rose with him, and once she was on her feet, John let go and walked towards the kitchen. A bemused Jade followed.

In the kitchen, Dad was flipping pancakes at the stove. A few small stacks sat on the table ready for consumption. Through the back door, John could see Bec idly sniffing around the yard. Jade saw him too. She nearly went out the door to him, but the obvious promise of food kept her inside. While she sat at the table, John got out the maple syrup and butter. He placed both down before serving himself a handful of pancakes, then dunking a few onto Jade's plate as well. She watched as he slathered butter and syrup over each, making a sticky swamp of food. When he was done, she pulled the butter and syrup over to herself. She sampled a bit of everything before drowning her pancakes like John. He smiled at her before digging in. She tore in with similar ferocity.

The stacks slowly disappeared as the two kids inhaled pancake after pancake. Dad sat himself down after finishing the last batch and made himself a slightly more modest plate, with a reasonable amount of butter and syrup. Everyone ate without talking, though it couldn't really be called silent. Soon, though, every pancake was gone and John was almost too stuffed to move.

"Geez, Dad, I know there's three of us now, but that was way too much food!" John rubbed his stretched stomach contentedly. "You're gonna have to roll me off to church, there's no way I could possibly walk after that much food."

"That didn't stop you from stealing the last of that stack from me, now did it?" Dad teased.

"Well, if we had to roll you around, there's no way we'd get to church on time. I was really saving you, Dad."

"From the horrible fate of pancake-stuffing?"


Dad chuckled and finished his orange juice. "Well, now it's time to roll up those stairs and get ready for church."

"All right." John put his dishes in the sink while his dad explained to Jade what she needed to do. After getting cleaned up, John went into his room and got out his suit. Dad always stressed the importance of dressing up for church - God deserved the highest respect, and that included dressing to the nines.

When he was finished changing, he returned to the living room, passing his dad on the way. Jade sat on a couch, playing with the hem of a dress. John was struck by how pretty she looked.

"Wow, did you bring that with you? It looks really good!" Jade looked at him. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a bit of a smile. Bec, sitting at her feet, thumped his tail a few times. He wasn't as spruced up as the rest of them were, but John figured they could make him cleaner for next week's services. Baby steps, right?

John flopped onto the opposite end of the couch from Jade to wait for Dad to finish changing himself. While Dad was always a dapper fellow, he stepped up his game for church, and he had to wash his face and hands as well. So, John waited, whistling a bit and swinging his legs. Jade fidgeted a little until Bec sat up and placed his head in Jade's lap. She scratched him behind the ear and his tail thumped against the couch again and again. John smiled. Even if it was a little weird to suddenly be living with someone else, the pair weren't too bad.

Dad strode down the stairs, adjusting the cuffs of his shirt. He also fixed the placement of his hat, making sure it sat at just the right angle. Preparations complete, he motioned the kids to get in the car.

John rushed out the door to get shotgun, only to realize once he got there that Jade wasn't going to fight him over it. She sat behind John, with Bec sprawled across the rest of the backseat. Dad made sure everyone was buckled in before pulling the car out of the driveway.

Jade absconded from the church halfway through the service. John jumped when she scurried out of the pew with Bec, then looked at his father in confusion. "Why'd she run, Dad? It's just church."

"We might have pushed her a little hard, son. Let her be alone for now, we can find her after the service." John was still confused, but he settled back into the pew, feeling unnerved for the rest of the service. At the end, he asked again, "Why did Jade run away, Dad?"

He sighed. "John, do you remember last night, when I said Jade was most likely unprepared for a gathering of this size?" John nodded as his gut clenched in guilt. "That is why she left. There were too many people for her to handle, so she escaped the situation. Now, we are going to go out, and we are going to find her, and you are going to apologize for forcing her into this. All right?" He nodded again, unable to look his father in the eyes. "Good. You check the park, I'll ask the neighborhood if they've seen her. Bring her back here if you find her." With that, Dad walked away, leaving John to run down the street, fueled by guilt and a little fear.

He ran through the park, looking for either girl or dog. Finally, he saw Bec lounging at the base of a tree. When he got closer, he noticed Jade perched on one of the higher branches. Upon his approach, Bec growled, focusing Jade's attention away from the swaying branches and onto the panting boy below. After catching his breath, he called up into the tree, "Hey! Sorry about making you be with all those people! We're going home, so you can get out of the tree now!" Jade looked down, not moving a single muscle. "Aw, come on! Don't you wanna be home, in your room with all your stuff? Someplace familiar?" Jade stood and climbed further up, hiding from John in the foliage. "Hey!" John stepped toward the tree and Bec raised his head, growling at the encroachment of territory. John huffed and sat on the ground.

Jeez, I said I was sorry, John thought. Why would she want to hang out in a weird park she's never been to when she could be at home. That's where I'd wanna be if I was scared. He flopped back and stared at the sky, as well as the top of Jade's tree. She's really good at climbing, though. I wonder if her island had lots of trees? John had learned how to climb the tree in his yard, but it wasn't nearly as tall as the trees in this park. That was years ago, anyway. His neighborhood friends had moved away, he'd started watching movies more often, and he'd probably forgotten how to climb by now. Jade seemed to belong up there, though, much more comfortable than she'd ever looked at the dinner table.

For the first time, John imagined what his house, his neighborhood, his life looked like to someone like Jade, who'd spent half her life alone with a dog and an island full of dangerous animals. She probably spent nights just like this, sleeping in the upper branches of a tree with Bec standing guard below. If his life depended on it, he would probably be just as good at climbing as she was. He realized how unfair he'd been to Jade, expecting her to fit into his world without even trying to think about where she came from. Well, that was going to change.

John stood and approached the tree again. Bec's growls grew louder as John moved closer, stopping when his sense of self-preservation finally kicked in. He called up, "Hey, Jade? Can you call Bec off? I wanna try climbing a bit." His heartbeat grew louder as he listened to Bec's snarls, until finally a small voice from above said, "Down, Bec." Bec stopped growling, but continued to grumble as John jumped for a branch near the trunk. He pulled himself up slowly from branch to branch, his old skills coming back as he climbed higher. He stopped around where Jade had been when he'd arrived. The branches above him became smaller and weaker, and he didn't trust his luck up there. He could see Jade again, though, lounging in the upper branches like she was a movie star sunbathing at the pool.

The park looked beautiful from up in the tree. John could see kids playing tag on one hill and some teenagers tossing around a frisbee on another. A party was being set up at some picnic tables. Once he was aware of it, the amount of life was almost staggering.

"I'm sorry." John didn't look at Jade, but the tree shifted a little under her. "This place is so different from what I'm used to, and I didn't really get that before. Dad was right, we should've just stayed at home today. I like being around people, but I guess you don't, and I shouldn't have made you come. We can go home and I won't make you do this again. Unless you want to, of course! Then I'd totally let you come back, but not until then!" Forgetting where he was, John flailed his arms in a horrible attempt to get his apology across. He lost his balance, yelped, and nearly fell off the branch, only saving himself by hanging from a different branch. He looked up to see Jade's face torn between concern and amusement. "Uh, can we go home now? I haven't climbed in years, and there's more of me to hurt now." Jade watched him a bit longer before finally giggling and starting down. When she drew even with John, she helped him regain his footing and followed him down. John dropped from the last branch carefully, happy to be on solid ground with no injuries, while Jade leaped down gracefully. Bec pushed himself into Jade and the pair shared a small moment before the trio headed back to the church parking lot.

Chapter Text

After that first Sunday, John made more of an effort to hang out with Jade. He'd join her and Bec on some of their adventures, although Dad placed more limits on his time (he couldn't be out past bedtime, and he still had to get good grades). John also pulled her into watching some of his favorite movies, complete with his own running commentary on the action.

Through it all, though, Jade still didn't speak. Nearly every word out of her mouth was directed at Bec, and any word that wasn't was a polite platitude (a quick "thanks" for passing a plate of food, a "sorry" tossed out for knocking John on his butt). Try as he might, John couldn't understand why Jade refused to talk to them. She definitely understood everything they said, but she never joined their conversations and she certainly never started one herself.

In fact, Jade's knowledge of everything, not just English, was confusing. She barely used a plate and utensils, but televisions and other electronics didn't faze her at all. In fact, she was better at using them than John was.

There was one Saturday afternoon when John decided he wanted to watch Armageddon again (it was really one of Liv Tyler's best films, in his opinion). When he tried to close the DVD player, though, it refused to read the disc. "Oh, come on, don't do this to me, buddy!" John pleaded with the DVD player. It had been a constant companion in his life ever since his dad had gotten it. The idea that it was broken was too much for him to bear.

After opening and closing the disc tray a few times, just to make sure it wasn't some sort of prank the DVD player was pulling on him - hey, sentient electronics weren't that far-fetched! - John tried unplugging the DVD player and plugging it back in, both from the power cord and the TV connectors. The DVD player remained firm in its refusal to play John's movie.

"All right," John whispered, "time to bring out the big guns." The big guns, in this case, were the buttons on the remote, which John pressed at random to try and get a different reaction from the machine. Besides turning the French captions on, nothing happened. After vainly trying to turn the captions off, John decided to settle for glaring the DVD player into submission. It was his last resort. He settled himself into a comfortable position and drudged up the best glare he had, a nice solid one he could hold for hours. He'd only managed a few minutes when he became aware of someone standing over him.

"Aaah!" John yelled and fell over. Jade giggled at him a little. Once his heart rate dropped a little, he laughed too. "Oh, hey Jade. Didn't see you there." John saw her looking at the accursed device he'd been struggling with. "That's a DVD player. It's not working, though, and I can't figure out why." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I guess Dad'll just have to buy a new one or something."

John sighed, wondering how he should spend his afternoon now that his original plans were ruined. As he got lost in his thoughts, Jade picked up the machine and looked at it, turning it around in her hands to see all its sides. Then, she unplugged it from the wall and the TV, and returned to her room. John snapped out of it just in time to see Jade disappear.

"Hey!" He jumped up and ran to her doorway, which she'd left open. He stopped before entering and stared.

Jade sat in the middle of her room, the DVD player set before her. Next to her was a toolkit, its top open. Jade pulled out tool after tool, quickly dissecting the machine. Some pieces were quickly laid aside and others held up for inspection. Finally, one part held her attention for several minutes before she finally picked up a cloth and cleaned it vigorously. She inspected it closely once more and nodded, satisfied with what she saw. Jade then put the DVD player back together efficiently and carried it back to the living room, John trailing behind her. She plugged the DVD player back in and put in the disc. This time, instead of the error John had gotten again and again, the opening previews began playing.

John felt his jaw drop. When Jade saw his face, she smiled and skipped back to her room. The DVD menu looped three times before John could put his thoughts back in order. The only thing he could think was, How did she do that?

Even after that incident, John didn't make the connection between Jade's erratic knowledge and the reason she had it until one day after school, when he sat at the living room table working on his homework. He spread his textbooks over the whole table and moved from assignment to assignment, leaving aside something once he ran into a problem and picking it back up later. It was a pretty odd way to do homework, but it worked really well for him.

He was filling out a few pages of his social studies workbook when he noticed Jade at the other side of the table, flipping quickly through his physical science textbook. In the latter third of the book, she slowed and looked more intently. John took a distressingly long time to connect the dots.

"You can read!" Jade jumped and stared at John, who blushed. "Wow, uh, I should have figured that one out faster. That explains a lot, though! Like how you were able to fix that DVD player and stuff, did you have a lot of books on your island? Although I guess it'd be weird if there was just some DVD manual lying around, so maybe you didn't read about those. But you weren't really surprised by the planes or cars or anything, were you? So I guess you read about those!" Without someone to interrupt him, John would talk until his lungs collapsed. Jade stared for a little while as he talked and talked, then returned to reading his science textbook. John meandered from sentence to sentence until he noticed Jade wasn't paying attention anymore. "Oh, sorry! Didn't mean to talk your ears off, hehe." He shut up for a bit and watched Jade's eyes race across the page.

Although she had slowed down from her earlier flipping through pages, she was still reading a lot faster than John could. It seemed pretty obvious that Jade already knew most, if not all, of the topics covered in his textbook. She didn't put it down, though, or reach for another textbook to rifle through. She was clearly interested in science, which was a field neither John nor his dad had any authority on (unless it was the science of comedy, of course!). This was the most animated John had seen Jade be without being in a tree, though, and he wanted to help her stay this way. Slowly, a plan began to form.

That weekend, John convinced his dad to drive him and Jade somewhere for his plan. After hearing it, Dad approved wholeheartedly. Bec had to stay home, though, since he wouldn't wear a leash. They got away with it at church, but their destination that day wasn't as relaxed about such things. Without her canine companion, Jade was obviously tense. John sat in the front seat to give her some free space, but his constant desire to check on her kept him bouncing in his seat.

Finally, John's dad pulled the car over to park in front of a building made of bricks and windows (it had only taken less than ten minutes to get there, but John was anxious to see if his plan would succeed or not). The sun was blocked out by the many trees surrounding them. A few people walked along a covered pathway to the entrance door. The building was set up in a U-shaped pattern surrounding a small courtyard with a circular tiered area, good for sitting and enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

He leapt out of the car in a single bound, while Jade left the car more warily. Before driving off, John's dad said, "Give me a call when you're ready to come home, okay? I'll be back to pick you up."

"Okay, Dad! We'll see you later!" John waved his dad off, then turned to a tense Jade. "Come on, I think you're really gonna like this place." John walked into the building, Jade following behind. They walked through the doors and Jade stopped short. John grinned. "Welcome to the public library."

Being a small community library, it wasn’t that impressive to him. There weren’t that many shelves of books, especially when compared to the big city libraries he’d been to once or twice, and a third of the shelves were dedicated to children’s books. The library was also pretty empty, for a Saturday afternoon. A student was sitting at one of the tables, books piled around them. Others at the tables worked on business letters, or watched movies with headphones on. A group of children sat in the corner, listening to a volunteer read them a picture book. The rest of the library's patrons milled around moving from catalogue computer to shelves and back again, books piling up in their arms.

To Jade, though, it must have been amazing. Sure, there were some books at John's house, but they were mostly in the bedrooms, where Jade rarely went, or in storage. Besides, most of them were about the long history of comedy or beginner's guides to programming languages - not the most exciting choices for a budding physicist, which Jade seemed to be.

She stared in wonder at the small room. John kept watch for any signs of panic, like when she'd bolted during the church ceremony. All he could see, though, was unbelieving joy. She seemed suspended, as if this was a dream that she would break by moving. John reached out slowly and grabbed her hand, squeezing it a little to reassure her. She jumped and stared at him, but he just gave his best closed-mouth smile in return. She smiled back and raced off, John's hand still intertwined with hers. He was pulled off-balance and dragged into Jade's wake. His first instinct was to complain, but the look on her face made any grievances he had disappear.

Jade explored all the shelves, reading each book's spine. She didn't dash very much after that initial burst, which John was thankful for. It would really suck to show her all this and then get kicked out for being too rambunctious. As it was, their antics didn't earn them much more than a glance from the other patrons, though a few gave them quick smiles, especially when John was unexpectedly pulled to a new shelf. Finally, Jade found the science section, where she dropped John's hand in order to look closely at the books. Now seems like the best time to explain how this place works, I guess.

"So, Jade. I dunno if you've ever heard of libraries before. It's a place that has a lot of books that you can borrow for a few weeks without paying any money. Dad said you can get a library card and we can come back here any time you'd like. It's even within walking distance from the house - Dad's just driving us today so neither of us gets lost or anything. I thought you'd like it here more than church, since there's usually not too many people and you also really liked that textbook I had, and since we don't have a lot of books you'd be interested in at home, you can get whatever you like and take it home and learn stuff while getting used to people who aren't me and Dad." John giggled nervously. "Sorry, I wanted to make it up to you for forcing you to go to church that one time. So... do you like it?"

Jade looked at him in wide-eyed wonder. "I can take... any book I want?"

"Well, yeah! You can even take more than one at a time, but you have to give them back in a few weeks, so I wouldn't take too many."

Jade grabbed him in a huge hug, squeezing John's breath out of his body all at once. Between the attempt to keep breathing and the face full of black hair, he almost didn't catch her quick whispered "Thank you." She let him go as fast as she'd grabbed him, and while he got his breath back, Jade started pulling books off the shelves.

John managed to convince her not to take more than five books, even withstanding her perfect puppy-dog eyes (he could've sworn there was even a little whine). She deliberated over her decision for a long time before finally choosing five books, two of them thicker than John's arm. At the check-out desk, the older woman behind it smiled at them sweetly. "Advanced theoretical physics? That's a little heavy, don't you think?"

John shrugged. "These are the ones she wants, and besides, Jade is really smart." When the librarian's gaze turned to Jade, she stepped behind John for protection. "Uh, she's really shy, too. So, um, what do I need to fill out to get her a library card?" The woman walked them through the process, John giving her information like Jade's name and their home address. When the woman asked for Jade's birthday, she whispered, "December first, nineteen ninety five," into John's ear. Her breath tickled. Paperwork taken care of, each of Jade's books were checked out and returned to her, who hugged them to her chest. Finally, the librarian printed out their receipt and handed it to John. "All of them are due in three weeks. Have a nice afternoon!"

"Thanks, you too. Let's go, Jade." The pair walked outside and John called his dad to pick them up. "He'll be here in just a bit," he told Jade after hanging up. They sat in the courtyard, Jade still clutching the books. "Do you want me to hold some of those? They look pretty heavy."

Jade shook her head. "I'm fine." They returned to silence, which had always been their usual state before, but now felt unnatural to John. Even if she hadn't said that much today compared to other people, it was still more than he'd ever heard from her before. He liked talking to Jade - she had an easy energy that made interacting with her exciting, and he wanted to talk with her more. What could they talk about, though? John couldn't match Jade's passion for science, and while she watched movies with him, she never looked all that interested. Practical jokes and computer programming weren't her sort of thing, either. So what could he do?

John's train of thought was derailed by a sudden honk from a car horn. Looking up, he saw his dad parked by the curb again. John opened the back door for Jade and went to sit in the front seat when Jade said, "Wait." Holding onto her books with one hand, she gestured him in with the other. On the short ride back, Jade was tense with excitement, not fear, and John could feel the happiness radiating from her. He spent the car ride trying to think of a hobby they could share.

Chapter Text

Just like that, a month went by. At least, that's how it felt to John - schoolwork, television, even his favorite webcomics all just went by, same as always. Nothing really changed for him.

Jade, on the other hand, was completely different. That trip to the library had transformed her. Now, the only times she didn't have a book in her hands were during meals (a rule Dad had laid down quite firmly) and when she was sleeping, and sometimes not even then. John had snuck downstairs once or twice to find the living room lights still on, and Jade curled up in a corner of the couch, book held carelessly against her side. He almost couldn't believe how cute she looked. Those nights, he tucked her in with an extra blanket, placed her book and glasses on the table, and turned off the lights as he returned to bed.

Of course, Jade's new habits didn't totally replace her old ones. She still spent most of her time outdoors, but now, instead of exploring the neighborhood with Bec, she was just as likely to be found sitting in a tree with one of her books in hand and another one laying on a branch nearby. John was pretty scared of walking under the tree the first time he found her like that, since she was usually pretty high and her books could do a lot of damage if they fell on someone, but after a while, he just got used to it, same as everything else about her.

She'd figured out eventually why John had argued her out of checking out even more books from the library, as she found three weeks was not enough time to study all her books as closely as she wanted. John explained about renewals, which helped, but she still came back from her second trip with fewer books.

That trip had gone well - John and Jade had walked over together with Bec, who waited outside for them while John walked Jade through returning and renewing her books. She renewed two from her first time and checked out an extra one - or rather, John did all that for her. The librarians were all very nice people, but Jade still wasn't comfortable enough with strangers to do all that herself.

"That will take some time, John," Dad explained one night, as the two of them prepared for dinner. John had taken the chance to voice his worries. "Bringing her to the library was an excellent idea, and I'm sure she'll get used to strangers soon, but you must let her adapt at her own pace."

John nodded, but he wasn't sure if his dad was right or not. He was still worried about Jade for some reason, even though his dad's argument made a lot of sense. He decided not to think about it too much, though, and just trust his dad. He was pretty smart, after all, even if he was into clowns way too much.

After he finished setting the table, John goofed off in the living room by playing a little Tony Hawk (he didn't care about skateboarding, but he'd gotten it as a birthday present a couple years back and it was a good time-waster) while Jade read one of her library books. Bec lay on the ground below her and she idly scratched his ears from time to time. Finally, Dad called out, "Food's on the table!"

John paused his game and raced into the kitchen, while Jade placed a bookmark in her book (a scrap of paper she'd picked up somewhere) and followed quickly. The three sat and Dad said a short grace, then they started passing plates and talking.

"So, John, did your presentation today on the Civil War go well?" Dad asked as he scooped out a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

John winced. "Uh, well... sort of?" He grinned sheepishly, but his dad obviously wasn't falling for it. Faced with his father's patient stare, John signed and explained. "My classmates all really liked it, but my teacher was, uh... not as happy with it. She said 'firearms are strictly prohibited on school grounds, Mr. Egbert!' and didn't even give me a chance to explain it was a prank pistol before she confiscated it." He decided not to tell his dad that his idea of explaining was more of a demonstration. That really wasn't going to help him get out of anything.

As he cut his pork into pieces, Dad said, "I suppose she sent a note home that you've forgotten about until just now, correct?" John froze. Busted! he thought to himself. Dad nodded as though that was answer enough, and turned to Jade. "And how are you, Jade? Learn anything interesting today?"

Jade, who had been eating during the whole showdown between John and his dad, swallowed her mouthful and said, "A little, yeah! One of my books talked about the mechanics of sound and how speakers and microphones and stuff physically transmit sound without creating feedback."

"Oh really?" Dad asked. "How do they manage that?"

With that small bit of encouragement, Jade launched into a highly technical description of sound transmission. Dad listened politely, nodding along and asking little questions at the right times. John, on the other hand, was completely lost. Terms like frequency and resonance jumped out at him, but she was talking about them on a much higher level than he could understand. He didn't think his dad actually understood any more than he did, but he was able to hold his own, at least. John could only eat quietly and think to himself.

He knew Jade was really smart, especially about machines and stuff, but it was one thing to see her reading thick physics books and fixing DVD players, and a totally different thing to hear descriptions of wave particles or whatever over dinner. He was glad she was opening up more, of course he was, but, well... how was he supposed to keep up with her? All the physics he knew came from the Ghostbusters series, and somehow he didn't think Jade would be impressed by the things he knew about ectoplasm.

John pushed his potatoes around a little, lost in his thoughts until his dad spoke up. "Son, have you been keeping up with your piano practice?"

John jumped a little. "Uh, kind of...?" Kind of not at all, he thought to himself. His teacher had gone on vacation several weeks ago, just before Jade joined them, and it was hard to make himself practice when there were movies to watch and games to play.

Dad was obviously not fooled, judging by the look on his face. "Well, since Ms. Flinder returns next week, I would suggest you practice after dinner."

John sighed. "Okay, Dad."

His dad's stern look softened. "And, after I get the dishes done, we can watch a movie together."

That raised John's spirits immediately. "Okay!" Watching movies was great, especially with his dad. He knew where all the best parts were and never spoke over them, and he liked the jokes and awesome moments just as much as John did.

His dad chuckled, and dinner continued as usual. When everyone was finished, Dad began loading the dishwasher, Jade disappeared into her room, and John sat at the piano in the living room, sheet music on the stand.

He started with some simple scales to warm his fingers up, since it really had been a while since he'd played. He'd sort of meant to practice once or twice, but between homework and Jade's presence, he'd never gotten around to it. After he finished his scales, he moved onto slightly more complex melodies before jumping into the music his teacher had given him. There would be a recital in May, and she wanted him to perform. He didn't really want to, but he wasn't against performing, either. It just meant a lot more practice than he usually wanted to do.

He started with the left hand, familiarizing himself with the running rhythm of the first few sets of measures so he wouldn't have to think about it while playing the melody with the right. He plunked through the notes a few times, making sure he had the right notes in the right order, then he slowly sped up until he had his left hand up to tempo. That side settled, he started learning the melody on his right hand.

The melody was a lot harder, so he had to spend a lot more time working through each measure, getting the movement from note to note just right. His teacher had started to work on it a little before leaving, but that had been a while ago, and they hadn't gone over a whole lot anyway.

Eventually, John felt brave enough to try playing both hands at once. He played very slowly all the way through what he'd been practicing. Once he'd managed that without mistakes, he tried speeding up. He worked like that, speeding up, screwing up, slowing down, speeding up again, until he realized someone was watching him.

At some point, Jade had left her room and come back into the living room. She stood by the fireplace, leaning a little against the mantel. Her eyes were completely fixed on John. No, he realized, not me. The piano. I guess she was watching me practice. He had no idea how long she'd been watching him - looking at the clock, he realized he'd been practicing for almost forty minutes. Now that he'd stopped, though, he and Jade were just staring at each other.

The moment stretched on. As the silence grew, John got scared that Jade would walk away, and he didn't want that to happen. This was the most attention she'd given him since he'd shown her the library, and he didn't want to lose it. Frantically, he tried to think of what to do. When she turned away, he blurted out, "Do you want to learn?"

Jade stopped and turned back to him. John asked again, "Do you want to learn how to play the piano?" Jade just kept staring, so John rambled on, "I could teach you a little. Like, I'm still not great at it, but but scales and stuff are pretty easy to learn. I could teach you some songs, too, like Mary Had A Little Lamb and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Do you know those songs? They're like classic kid songs, we sang them a lot in elementary school. It took me a really long time to realize Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Baa Baa Black Sheep and the alphabet song were all the same tune. Isn't that weird? Those are all like really famous songs and they're all actually the same one. I think they were all written by the same guy, too. Mozart or Bach or something, one of those really famous composer guys everyone talks about. It's crazy, he wrote all these huge fancy symphonies that everyone still thinks are the best pieces of music ever, but he also wrote these dinky little nursery songs that even kids ignore after they turn twelve." He stopped to catch his breath. Jade had gotten a really weird expression on her face when he started talking about nursery rhymes. Now that he'd stopped talking, it was really obvious she was trying her best not to laugh. John felt a little put out. "What? What's so funny?"

Jade finally broke. In between laughs, she said, "I thought you were gonna pass out from talking so much!"

"Well, just say something if you think I'm talking too much! Jeez..." John frowned. He totally didn't pout. Not at all. Pouting was totally uncool.

For some reason, his frown made Jade laugh even more. She laughed so hard that John felt a smile growing on his face, too. A few giggles escaped, and from there it was all over. He was laughing so hard, he got a stitch in his side, and Jade fell all the way to her knees. Every once in a while, one of them would stop, but the other would just set them off again.

It took a while for them to calm down, but the gigglefit eventually passed. John wiped a few tears from his eyes. He hadn't laughed like that since the first time he watched Little Monsters. Well, maybe not that long, but it sure felt like it. Once he knew he wasn't gonna set her off again, he said, "I really could teach you, you know. If you wanted."

Jade's smile turned contemplative. John fidgeted a little as she thought. Finally, she nodded and smiled. "Yeah. I'd really like that."

John smiled back. "Okay!" He scooted over on the bench. "Here, we can start now. Sit here, next to me." He patted the bench welcomingly, and Jade sat down. She was still smiling, but there was a hint of worry in her eyes. Her hands stayed in her lap, her fingers tensed.

Now that they were here, John didn't know where to start. "Uh... can you read music at all?" Jade shook her head. "Okay, let's start with that. This is sheet music. This is what's called a music staff, and these lines break it up into measures..." John pointed out everything on the sheet music as he spoke. Jade nodded along at his explanation, but pretty soon her eyes started glazing over. When he realized the sheet music he had was way too complicated for a total beginner, he grabbed one of his first practice books.

Jade smiled when she saw the less busy music. "Thanks."

"No problem. So, notes. This," John plunked a key, "is C. Because it's in the middle of the keyboard, we call it middle C." He plunked it a few more times. When he finished, Jade hit it a few times herself. They looked at each other and laughed a bit. "Okay, you've got C down. This one next to it is D..."

Paul Egbert looked at all the paperwork on his desk and sighed. Taking in Jade had been the right thing to do, he knew that, but it was going to be difficult to raise two children on one man's salary. It was times like these he missed his late wife the most.

This wasn't the time to get caught up in old memories, though. He had plenty of things to keep his mind on in the present. Ironing out details of the adoption, paying off the furniture for Jade's room, the preparations to enroll her in school... all of that and more contributed to the mountain of papers, as well as his headache.

I need a break, he thought. He decided to take a walk down the hall to stretch his legs, and also to check on John. He was a talented pianist when he applied himself, but diligence was not one of his strong suits. Perhaps we can start that movie, if he's not fooling around. Those papers can wait for a few hours. Decision made, Paul left his bedroom.

As he walked down the hall, he heard the piano being played downstairs. Instead of John's recital piece, though, it seemed to be... Chopsticks? Curious, he stopped at the top of the stairs and looked down into the living room.

John and Jade were sitting at the piano, laughing quietly to each other. Both of their hands danced across the piano, John's quick and light, Jade's slow and thoughtful. Whenever Jade made a mistake, they would stop and John would show her the right way to play. Sometimes Jade would shove John playfully, and in retaliation he would play faster and leave her in the dust.

Up on the second floor, Paul leaned against the railing and smiled. Jade's appearance had been a surprise, and the situation was more complicated than he let the children know, but it would be worth it for moments like this. John would never say anything to him, but he knew his son wasn't very close to anyone but his father. He got along with his classmates well enough, but none of them were good friends, and their church congregation averaged closer to his own age than his son's. With Jade, though, he seemed to be forming a close bond - one that both of them seemed to need.

As he was lost in his thoughts, John happened to look up. "Dad! How long have you been standing there?" He glanced at the piano and looked back with a guilty smile. "Uh, I did practice for a while. I promise."

"I asked him to teach me a little," Jade added. "Since it sounded really cool when he was playing."

Paul walked down the stairs. "I can understand that urge, Jade. John is quite talented, after all." John blushed at that. "Would you like to take lessons of your own?" Mentally he began shuffling funds, trying to figure sums and costs in his head.

Jade considered the offer with a tilt of her head, then slowly shook it. "No, I don't think so."

Paul nodded, inwardly relieved. He could have afforded extra lessons, but it would've been close. "Well, then. Let's put away that music and start a movie, shall we?"

"All right!" John jumped off the bench, nearly knocking it, and Jade, to the floor. "... Whoops."

Paul kept an eye on Jade, in case she went too far in retaliation, but she just gave John a light thump on the arm. He yelped and rubbed the spot, but it was obviously a performance. The two engaged in a mocking slapfight for a few seconds, and Paul held back a smile. Siblings.

Suddenly remembering his dad was in the room, John ceased tussling. "Sorry, Dad. I'll get the movie set up." John jumped over to the DVDs and started searching through them. Paul and Jade settled themselves on the couch on separate sides, leaving the middle for John. When he finished setting up the DVD player, he bounced over and flopped into the open space, grabbing the remote on the way down. "Perfect, I totally wanted the middle seat. Thanks, guys!"

Paul chuckled. "Which movie have you chosen for us tonight, son?"

"Honeymoon in Vegas!" John exclaimed as the DVD reached the menu screen.

Ah, another Nicolas Cage movie. Of course. "Wonderful. Let's begin then, shall we?"

"Yeah!" John hit the OK button and the movie started.

As the movie opened, Paul settled back and glanced at his children. John was leaning forward, totally engrossed from the start. Jade was less obvious but no less attentive, her eyes glued to the screen. Yes, Paul thought to himself, with God's help this family will be just fine.

Chapter Text

John pushed himself away from his computer and stretched out his back. He'd been trying his hand at coding again, but he just couldn't figure out the syntax for what he wanted to do, and none of the forum guys were being helpful today. When he looked at the clock and realized he'd been working on the program for over an hour without any progress, he decided to give up and find something else to do.

He didn't want to do anything on the computer anymore, so he went downstairs to see if Jade was around. She didn't seem to be in her room, and John remembered she'd gone out for a walk with Bec a little after lunch. His dad had gone grocery shopping, so he wasn't around, either. It's Saturday afternoon, I've got the whole house to myself, and I'm totally bored. Ugh. He flopped onto the couch and considered channel surfing, but he couldn't see the remote and he didn't want to go looking for it.

After staring into space for a minute or two, John decided to head out into the yard and see if any of the neighborhood kids were around. There used to be a lot of kids on his street, but most of them had moved away over the years and now there were only a few kids his age around. They'd all gotten busier, too, so it was harder to just hang out with anyone. It was worth a shot, though.

John headed outside and looked up and down the street. It looked totally deserted. Even the cars were gone from most of the driveways, like everyone had decided to go to some party together and hadn't told him about it. Or like there was some disaster and I'm about to go on some huge journey to save the world, John thought. He entertained himself by pretending he was Bruce Willis on his way to destroy a humongous asteroid, but playing pretend by himself had stopped being fun like three years ago.

He tried swinging on his tire swing a little, but that also wasn't as fun as it used to be. When he got off, though, he noticed the flappy thingy on the mailbox was up. Did the mailman come through after Dad left for the store? John decided to check.

The mailbox was indeed full of mail, and John patted himself on the back for his awesome deductive skills. He rifled through the letters as he walked back inside. Nothing really caught his eye except an official-looking envelope. It had his dad's full name, not just 'Current Resident', and the return address had a super-fancy logo with a set of scales. It looked like it was from a lawyer, but why would some lawyer be mailing his dad anything?

He tossed the mail on top of the living room table and decided to forget about the letter for now, since he couldn't really do anything about it without opening it himself, and his dad always said opening another man's mail was a despicable thing to do. Also, he was pretty sure it was illegal.

Now that he was back inside, he remembered how bored he was. He sighed and started looking for the remote. At least channel surfing would be less boring than staring at the wall. He found some random game show and settled in for some mindless TV time. About halfway through the episode, his dad returned from the grocery store. "Hello, son," he said. "Could you help me put groceries away?"

"Sure." John muted the TV and helped his dad ferry the groceries into the kitchen, where he unpacked the bags and Dad put the food away. Once they were done, John went back to the living room and unmuted the television.

His dad looked on from the kitchen doorway. "I didn't realize you watched this show, John."

"I don't, but I have nothing else to do."

"Oh?" Dad raised his eyebrows. "So your homework for the weekend is done, is it?"

John groaned and slumped further into the couch. "Ugh, I don't wanna do homework on a Saturday. That's just wrong."

"Yes, but if you get it done today, you won't have to do it tomorrow. If you don't have to do it tomorrow, we may have the time to do something fun together."

Stupid Dad and his stupid logic. John really didn't want to do his homework, but the promise of a reward the next day was too much. He turned off the TV and got his backpack. He only had some math homework to do, after all. It would probably go really fast.

John glared at his textbook. Why must you torture me so? He had been stuck on this one problem for ages, and the little explanation at the beginning of the chapter was not being helpful at all.

"Hey John, can you play something for me? On the piano?"

John jumped and looked up from his math homework. He didn't realize Jade had returned from her walk with Bec. Any break from finding the slope of a line was a good break, though! "Sure! Let me just get my music books and you can pick something out."

As John tried to dash for his music library, Jade called out, "Wait!" John skidded to a stop, nearly tripping over his own feet. Jade snorted as he windmilled his arms in an attempt to stay standing. When he seemed stable again, she said, "I already have something I want you to play."

"Oh." John laughed a little. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Well, lay it on me, then!"

Jade shuffled her feet a little, and John noticed how stiff she seemed. He'd learned by now that Jade went stiff when she was really nervous or scared of something. What's there to be scared of, though? John asked himself. As he tried to puzzle out Jade's feelings, she took a piece of folded binder paper out of her pocket and handed it to John. He took it and unfolded it. The first thing he noticed when he looked at the page was that the notes were all handwritten. Did she copy this out of a book? I don't recognize it, and I don't think she got any music books out of the library last time... "Jade, did you write this?" John asked.

"Yeah." She kept her eyes trained directly on John, though on his body, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. It was another nervous habit that still unnerved him, even after living with her for a couple of months. "I can't play well enough to see if it sounds good, though."

"Okay, let me try it out." John moved to the piano and placed Jade's song on the music stand. He played through in his mind a couple of times, his fingers drifting over the keys. It wasn't a complicated song, but he wanted to show it the respect Jade deserved. Finally, he began to play.

The entire melodic phrase was only about ten measures long, but it was a beautiful song for its simplicity. Jade corrected him on the tempo at first, then she simply sat back and listened. After a few repetitions, John started improvising on his left hand - no moving phrases, just a few chords to underline the melody.

Jade grinned joyfully as soon as he started playing around with her work. "John, that sounds amazing! I wanted something to go with the higher bit, but it got too complicated for me to think about."

"What you wrote was really great on its own, though," John countered. "Super great, even. I almost can't believe you wrote it, except, you know, you're you." Jade laughed at that. "I'm serious!"

"I know, that's why I laughed." After laughing a bit at John's disgruntled face, Jade grabbed the paper off the music stand. "Okay, show me how to write what you did with your left hand."

They returned to the living room table, and John struggled to remember his bass clef notation. Ugh, left hand is so much harder to write than it is to read... As he tapped out his improvisations with one hand and wrote them down with the other, his dad walked into the living room. "Sorry to interrupt you two, but I'd like to talk to Jade for a moment."

"Me? Why?" Jade asked.

"Do you remember the test I had you take the other day?"

John stopped notating, distracted by the conversation he'd planned to ignore. "A test? When did you give Jade a test, Dad? Unless it was one of those Kung Fu movie -"

"No, John, nothing like that. I assure you it was a simple test, very much like those you take yourself at school. Speaking of which, how's your homework coming along?" Dad asked with a pointed look at John's scattered school supplies.

"Ack!" John quickly finished his piece of Jade's song and returned to wrestling with the math homework he'd abandoned earlier. As he worked, he kept a little of his attention on Dad and Jade.

"As I was saying," Dad said as he sat in the chair next to the couch, "Jade, you remember that I said the test had to do with your schooling, correct?"

"Yes." Jade sat on the couch with stiff limbs, staring at John's books.

"Don't worry, Jade, you did very well considering that you've received no formal education to this point." Dad smiled at her warmly. "You did exceptionally well on the math and science sections - you could easily enroll in senior-level courses with your current knowledge, I believe. Your reading comprehension is rather good as well. However, other parts of your education are noticeably lacking. Your historical anecdotes were quite... entertaining, though."

"It's just the sorta stuff Grandpa told me sometimes when I was going to sleep." Jade said quietly. John stole a glance at her face, since she never mentioned her grandfather, but her face was level and blank. Instead of saying more about Mr. Harley, like John was silently entreating her to, she said, "So what does it mean?"

"Well, I'm afraid some of your educational gaps are too large for me to handle myself, so you'll have to have a tutor catch you up. Possibly several, in fact. I'd like to be able to enroll you in high school with John this fall, but you would have a great deal to learn in a relatively short amount of time. Would you be willing to try?"

Jade sat silently for a little while. "School has a lot of people, right?"

"Not really, I mean..." John interrupted without thinking, giving up on pretending he was focused on his homework. When he thought about how many different kids there were in his classes, and how many classes there were, and all the different teachers, he said, "Well, actually, yeah, it's a lot of people, I guess. You're getting better with that, though, right?"

Jade smiled a little at John, but she seemed tired more than anything else. She continued, "And I'm gonna have to go eventually?"

Dad leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. "Hm... Strictly speaking, no. You could simply obtain a high school education through tutoring or online classes and the law would be satisfied. However, those are more complicated options, and I think attending a school would give you a valuable social foundation that you would use for the rest of your life."

"And, um..." Jade's voice became very quiet. "If I don't go this fall, I wouldn't go with John?"

Dad nodded. "Essentially, yes."

"Then..." Jade took a deep breath in and out. "I think tutoring would be a good idea. I'll work hard and learn as much as I can before school starts."

Dad nodded approvingly. "Good. I'm glad you're willing to give this a try." He stood with some effort.

As he moved toward the front door, John said, "Oh, I got the mail earlier, Dad!" When his dad turned around, John pointed at the pile of letters almost hidden under the papers spread around the table.

"Ah, well then! Thank you, John, that was very thoughtful. I suppose I can start dinner then."

"What are we having?" John asked.

"Spaghetti and meatballs."

"Oh, okay." We've been having that a lot more often... John thought to himself. And we haven't had anything with steak in a while, either. Oh well, it's better than that weird chicken recipe he used to make all the time. Dad moved into the kitchen and Jade returned to her room, leaving John alone with his linear functions again. He groaned and bent to the task.

That night, John was jolted out of sleep by a super weird dream. He'd been running from someone trying to kill him, and there was something about a lizard man... or a bug dog with crow wings... nope, it was gone. He squinted at the clock. He couldn't quite tell without his glasses, but it looked like it was a little past four in the morning. He groaned quietly and turned over, but then he realized he needed to pee. He got his glasses and walked to the bathroom.

He did his business, washed his hands, and started back to his room. On the way back, he noticed a light coming from under his dad's door. What's he doing awake? John thought. He slowly opened the door and peeked in.

Inside, his father was seated at his desk. He seemed to be reading something. John stepped further into the room and said, "Dad?"

The man jumped and turned in his seat, clearly surprised to see his son. "John? What are you doing up at this hour?"

John shrugged. "I dunno, I just woke up." For a second, he considered telling his dad about the dream, but he didn't really remember it and besides, it was just a stupid dream. "Why are you still awake?" By now, he stood next to his dad's chair and could see all the papers laid across the desk. In one corner, he recognized the envelope he'd picked up that afternoon. "Who's that letter from? Is it from a lawyer?"

Dad moved the envelope away from John's reaching hand. "It's nothing for you to worry about, John. Just a few final details about Uncle Harley's estate." He smiled, but his face was pulled tight with fatigue. "If you need something to worry about, your birthday's just a few weeks away, and I haven't heard any party plans from you yet."

"Oh, right." John couldn't believe he'd almost forgotten his birthday. Turning thirteen was a pretty big deal, he'd have to plan accordingly. A huge yawn interrupted his thoughts before he could start planning then and there.

"Alright, go to bed. We can talk in the morning."

"Okay, Dad. Good night. Sleep well."

"Sleep well, son." John ambled sleepily out into the hall, looking back once to see his dad return to his work.

Chapter Text

"I have a surprise for you, Jade." Those were the first words Dad said as he walked through the front door.

Jade looked up from her book. She'd curled up on one corner of the couch, while John watched a movie from the other corner. "A surprise? What kind?"

"Come out to the car and I'll show you." He placed his briefcase down by the door and went back outside. Jade followed him, and after he paused his movie, John did too. Mysterious surprises were way more exciting than the apocalypse!

Outside, Dad opened the trunk of the car and showed off its contents to the children. Jade stared at the pile of machinery in confusion. John knew what it was, but he still had to ask. "A computer?"

Dad nodded. "Yes, one of my colleagues recently upgraded his, er, rig, and was kind enough to give me the older model at a very reasonable price. Having your own computer will make your studies easier, and I believe you will find socialization with your peers easier, as well."

John carefully lifted the monitor and keyboard out of the trunk, while Jade and his dad carried the computer between them. As they walked slowly to Jade's room, Jade asked, "What sort of things can a computer do?"

"All sorts," Dad answered. "John and I will help you get started, but you'll most likely learn best by exploring on your own."

Jade nodded, but John could tell she didn't really seem satisfied by that answer. "It's a really complicated machine, Jade. Like a phone and a DVD player and an XBox and more, all in one spot." She didn't seem satisfied by that, either, but she smiled at John in thanks anyway.

Jade's room had grown more cluttered since she'd joined the Egbert household. Various rocks and sticks were strewn about, souvenirs from her adventures with Bec. Bec himself was sprawled across her bedspread, lazily watching the humans as they entered the room. Extraneous bits of machinery lay about as well, from machines she'd found abandoned on the sidewalk and brought home to tinker with. Her library books were neatly stacked on her bedside table, though, and her clothes were either in the dresser or the hamper.

From his vantage point on top of the bed, Bec watched as Jade cleared her desk so John could place the monitor and keyboard there. The computer was placed underneath, and Dad returned outside to grab all the associated wires. When he returned, the three swapped wires back and forth, working together to install the computer. After the hardware was set up, Dad made sure the software ran properly. Once Dad knew everything was running smoothly, he left Jade's room, and the sound of the television came seconds later. John was left to explain the basics to Jade.

"Okay, the most important thing is this little button down here, the Start menu." John pointed at it with his finger, then with the cursor. "This is how you get to most of your programs, and it's also how you shut down the computer when you're done. You have to shut down the computer before you turn it off, or goblins will eat all your files and blow up your computer in the middle of the night."

Jade had been slowly nodding along (a gesture she'd learned from John and his dad), but she snorted at his last statement. "Right, and they're invisible too, huh?"

John nodded solemnly. "Exactly. Invisible explosive goblins. So don't turn the computer off without shutting it down." He pointed out how to access the CD drive and other important basic folders. "It's okay if you don't get this all right away, it's pretty complicated stuff," he said when he realized how quickly he was running through some things, but Jade just shook her head and gestured for him to keep going.

Finally, he opened Internet Explorer. "This is a shitty version of a web browser, which is how you connect to the Internet, one of mankind's greatest achievements. Aside from the entire filmographical career of Nicolas Cage, of course."

"Of course," Jade remarked idly, her attention on the screen as Internet Explorer slowly booted up.

"First thing we're gonna do is download a less shitty browser for you so you don't have to wait forever for things to load. I like Typheus, so we'll get that first, but you can change it later if you want." Once the browser window finally came up, John clicked away all the messages Internet Explorer gave him and went straight to work downloading Typheus. Jade asked him questions along the way that he answered to the best of his ability. When Typheus was downloaded and installed, John launched it immediately. "Okay, now we can really get started."

A little while later, John left Jade to her own devices as he returned to the homework he'd been ignoring earlier in favor of watching his movie. He'd explained about search engines and websites, and finally led her to Wikipedia, which was incredible! The books she'd been reading from the library were great, but the time constraint had been frustrating her. They were often filled with concepts she didn't care about, either, so she had to sift through a five thousand page book for maybe three articles she really cared about. Now, though, she could look up exactly what she wanted to know! The articles were generally a lot less in-depth than what she'd been reading, obviously, but at her current level of knowledge, that was fine.

Besides, Wikipedia didn't just have scientific articles. She could look up nearly anything and find at least a small explanation. Grandpa had taught her some basic history, but he'd never framed them as history lessons. Instead, they were stories about strapping lads and feisty ladies having a scrum over this or that bit of land. Between his undermining the physical scope of these stories, and the island's small size throwing off her sense of scale, she'd never realized just how big some of the conflicts had been. Now that she had experience of the world outside the island, though, she understood that what her grandpa had called "a bit of a dust-up between Abe and Bobby," which she'd always interpreted as a fight between two guys and a few of their friends, was actually called the American Civil War. Grandpa had censored out a lot of other things in his stories. Once she realized just how much, she stopped looking at articles on historical events.

Instead, she looked up some of the movies and TV shows John watched, and the video games he played, and branched out from there. Jade knew she couldn't get an entire childhood's worth of education in one sitting, but she could certainly try! She looked up famous movies and found out why they were famous. On the way she found some actor who'd done voice acting as well as his other roles, and from there found cartoons and children's programming. One of the links there sent her to Youtube, where she spent the better part of an hour watching clips of cartoons - some were made before she was born, and some had been broadcasted just last week. Her adventures were aided by a site she'd found called "The Beginner's Guide to Youtube".

Somehow, as she clicked related link after related link, Jade found herself watching weirdly edited versions of shows she'd never seen. It all culminated in one video with horrendous art and incomprehensible voices layered beneath wildly undulating music. She had no idea what was going on, but the music was actually incredibly good sometimes. When she looked up the rest of the videos uploaded by that user, she found that, while most of them were the same sort of incomprehensible mess as that first video, several of them were simple musical tracks. Good musical tracks, in her opinion.

She listened to a handful of them and learned that they were all remixes of other songs. The musician always linked copies of the original music in the description so someone could hear just what he'd done to mix them together. Sometimes, he linked to something he called a "forum", too, which Jade quickly "googled" (the Internet had lots of weird words!) and discovered that a forum was a website where people gathered and discussed different things. The forum this guy kept linking to focused on music - composing, remixing, playing, whatever, so long as it had to do with music.

"Jade." Jade jumped and turned to the door, only to see Mr. Egbert standing there. "It's time for dinner now."

"Okay." Jade glanced back at the computer. There was still so much to see, she couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.

Mr. Egbert chuckled. "The computer will still be there after you've finished eating, I promise."

Jade laughed and stood up. He's right, I can learn plenty about forums later.

A few days later, while Jade was out on a walk with Bec, John snuck into her room. He'd been taking it easy on her because of everything she was going through, but it was time she knew what it meant to be part of the Egbert family. It was time for her to get pranked.

He'd thought about hiding under her bed and jumping out when she got back, but that was probably just gonna get him mauled. Twice. He'd considered doing something to her computer, but even though she'd gotten really good with it (she'd barely asked him any questions about it after the first day, in fact), it still didn't feel right to mess with it in case she felt like she'd done something wrong. Also, all the benign viruses he tried to write didn't work anyway. Finally, he decided to go through her room and flip everything around. Harmless, silly, and he could try to convince her a ghost did it instead of him. The perfect way to prank someone for the first time.

So, starting at one end of the room, he flipped every single thing that could move upside-down, backwards, or both. Her stack of books got flipped around so the spines were against the wall, machine casings were rotated, and he even got some of her tools to balance upright without leaning against anything. As he worked, he was completely focused on his task, so when the computer bleeped at him, he nearly jumped through the ceiling.

Very glad nobody saw that, he woke Jade's computer up to see what made the noise. I should remind her to turn the computer off when she goes somewhere, John thought to himself as he clicked on the blinking minimized window. A chatlog opened up from some application called Pesterchum. John frowned. I didn't get that for her... The chatlog was filled with bright red and green text. John scrolled back and read some earlier bits of the conversation, ignoring the little voice that told him not to.

TG: nah im telling you the truth i swear
TG: the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me kanye
GG: i dunno, still seems like youre a big fat liar to me!
TG: for real i have to wade through like twenty redneck ninja clans every day
TG: to and from school
TG: they hang around in packs and pounce from the shadows
TG: waving their shotguns around like its their god given right
TG: because it is
TG: god bless america
GG: how can they be ninjas if they use shotguns?
TG: cmon kid i explained this already
TG: texas is broken up into five great shinobi cities
TG: each led by a wise and powerful texan known as the hickage
TG: every texan trains day and night to defend their home against enemy texans
TG: and each great city specializes in a different way of fighting
TG: houston texans use shotguns obviously
TG: san antonios got horses
TG: dallas has football
TG: you get the idea
GG: hmmmmmmmmmmmmm
GG: nope, im still pretty sure youre full of shit!
TG: jesus look at the fucking potty mouth over here
TG: what happened the innocent sweet naive little girl i used to know
GG: :o we only met two days ago!
TG: and look at how far weve come
TG: ive already got you swearing like a very polite sailor
TG: next thing you know well be bumming for cigs and crusing for hussies
GG: in a car im pretty sure neither of us could drive?
TG: texan laws are very lenient about underage drivers
TG: and underage drinkers
TG: and underage gun owners
TG: basically as long as you dont skip church you can do whatever the fuck you want
TG: oh hey my bros yelling for me about somethin
TG: gonna be afk for a bit probably
GG: okay, ill talk to you later then!!
-- turntechGodhead [TG] is an idle chum! --
TG: hey sorry he talked for fucking ever
-- gardenGnostalgic [GG] is an idle chum! --
TG: somethin about dinner or noise complains or ninja fights i dont even know
TG: anyway let me know when youre back

"John?" John jumped so hard he fell out of the chair. From his position on the ground, he saw Jade frowning at him. Not a confused frown, either. It looked more like an angry frown. "Oh, uh... hey, Jade."

"What are you doing in my room, John?"

John stood up and waved his hands around like he was clearing the air of smoke. "That's not important. Who's this TG guy you've been talking to?" he asked, gesturing at the computer.

"Someone I met on a music forum. Why?" Jade was still standing stiff in the doorway. Behind her, Bec sat upright, alert and completely still.

"You can't just talk to strangers on the Internet, Jade. There's a lot of bad people out there who'd totally take advantage of you. What do you even know about this TG guy? You can't know for sure he's from Texas - for all you know, he lives like two blocks over. You didn't tell him where you live, did you?"

"He's never asked, and I barely know where I live, so it wouldn't even make a difference. None of that matters, though," Jade said flatly. "Because the important thing here is you sneaking into my room when I'm not here! That's against the rules and you know it!"

"Well sometimes it's a good idea to break the rules!" John stamped his foot. "This guy could be dangerous, okay? You shouldn't talk to him anymore."

"Isn't that why I got the computer, though? To talk to people?"

John frowned. "Well, yeah, but... not right away!"

Jade's eyes narrowed. "So I shouldn't make friends at all?"

"No, you shouldn't! Not yet!" A hush fell over the room after John's words, and part of him wished he could take them back. Most of him was still pretty angry for some reason, though, so instead of apologizing, he just tried to stare Jade down.

For her part, Jade simply stared back, then stamped over and grabbed him by the arm. Before he really knew what was happening, he was thrown onto the living room floor and Jade's door was slammed shut behind him.

John sat up and stared at the door. He sort of thought he should apologize, but he wasn't really sorry about anything he said. I'm just trying to be a good brother, he thought. Disgruntled by the sight of the closed door, he went upstairs to his room. He thought about playing some computer games, but just looking at the machine made him feel upset, so instead he just collapsed face-down on his bed.

A tap on his door a few moments later had him bolt upright, thinking it was Jade coming to apologize, but it was just his dad. He sagged a little. "What?"

"I believe I heard some yelling just now. Would you like to explain?"

John scowled. "No, Jade's just being stupid."

"That's rather harsh." His dad walked in and sat on the bed next to John. "What happened?"

John stared at his floor, not really wanting to go through the whole story. Dad just sat there patiently, though, waiting for him to speak up. Finally, John gave up. "Jade's talking to this guy online and she wouldn't listen to me when I told her he could be dangerous."

"I see." John glanced at his dad's face, but his expression was neutral. "And how did you discover she and this gentleman were talking together?"

"Well, um..." John considered lying, but he was still really bad at it, especially with his dad. "I might've... snuck into her room when she was gone and sorta read one of their chatlogs. I didn't really mean to, but the computer made a noise and I..." John trailed off, not even sure why he'd read that conversation himself.

Dad sat silently for a few seconds, and with every second that passed, John sank lower and lower. He knew he was due for a Dad Lecture with what he'd done. Finally, his dad said, "You'll have to apologize to Jade for intruding on her privacy."

"I know," John whispered.

"Good." With that, his dad patted him on the shoulder and stood up. "I'll go and start dinner, then."

"Okay." John watched his dad walk out, grateful he'd avoided a longer lecture but still feeling pretty crappy. When he was gone, John flopped backwards onto his bed and stared at the ceiling. He'd have to go apologize to Jade eventually, but for now he just wanted to ignore everything for a while.

Now that he'd had a chance to calm down a bit, he didn't even know why he'd been angry. He was worried about Jade a little, but that hadn't been the reason he'd yelled at her about that TG dude. He didn't even seem that bad. A little weird, but not in a creepy pedophile way - more like an awkward kid sort of way. Him trying to convince Jade Texas was like some real-life version of Naruto was pretty funny, even. He just didn't want Jade talking to him.

John groaned and closed his eyes, frustrated at his useless thoughts. He didn't think he'd fall asleep, so he didn't bother taking off his glasses, but there wasn't anything else he wanted to do. Geez, I haven't even thought about my birthday party yet, he realized. It was only two weeks away, and he had no idea who he was going to invite or what they were going to do. His dad would make way too many cakes, of course, and there would be new video games to play or movies to watch, but he still had to make some kind of plan. Whatever, I'll figure it out later, he thought as he laid there and tried not to think about anything important anymore.

Chapter Text

TG: still dont get what the big deal is
TG: bro messes with my shit all the time
GG: well he shouldnt!!!!!
GG: or well, thats what our rules are
GG: i guess your bro makes the rules so its different for you?
TG: yeah at casa strider its bro rules dave drools

Jade sighed and pushed back from the computer a little as Dave went on about how Bro was like a dungeon master? She had no idea what he was talking about, but it wasn't like that was any different than usual. She didn't understand what most people were talking about, after all, and she'd spent a lot of her time on the internet talking to people. At least Dave was better about explaining himself than most were (or just telling Jade when she didn't have to worry about understanding).

She sighed again, which grabbed Bec's attention. He hopped off her bed and laid his head in her lap, looking up at her expectantly. Jade obliged, scratching behind his ears vigorously. Bec made a happy little grumble, which Jade echoed back at him. Bec's easy to understand, at least, she thought. She couldn't help but wish people were more like him.

Looking back at the screen, she saw Dave was winding down off his enormous tangent. Somehow it became about cheerleading? She was a little sorry she'd missed this one - she'd have to read it when Dave wasn't still talking to her.

TG: and then its done
TG: landing secured
TG: hey you still there or have i been shitting out this masterpiece to an empty chair
GG: im here!!!
GG: didnt want to interrupt your flow xD
TG: mighty kind of you maam
TG: so anyway john apologized right
TG: you said something about him apolgizing before i started spinning my sick shit
GG: he did apologize but.....
TG: what
GG: well
GG: it felt like a pretty shitty apology :/
GG: like he was sorry he got caught, not that he was sorry for looking at my stuff
TG: i dunno sounds like youve got a pretty sweet horse youre taking to the dentist here

Jade stared at Dave's words, trying to figure out if that was something she was actually supposed to understand or just Dave being weird again. Did a lot of people have horses? Was horse dentistry a major part of life that she'd missed out on so far? She was just about to look it up on the internet when Dave continued talking.

TG: fuck you probably didnt have idioms or metaphors or whatever on the moon
TG: or theyre all based on dust and rocks
GG: i grew up on an island, not the moon!
TG: right the private island in the middle of the pacific dominated by a volcano and owned by a wealthy eccentric billionaire explorer
TG: that is definitely less ridiculous than the moon
GG: its true though!!!!
TG: oh i believe you
TG: just pointing out how ridiculous the whole thing is
TG: like that is seriously some superhero origin story shit youve got going on there
TG: you know you can be honest with me gg
TG: if youre the last member of your race sent here on hope and a meteor ill understand
TG: ill keep your secret even when your mortal foe kidnaps me to set up a trap for you
TG: dangling me off a cliff and a bus full of preschoolers off another cliff forcing you to choose who to save
TG: you can save the preschoolers first ill understand
TG: with my last dying breath ill forgive you
TG: tell you to keep being a hero
TG: and then ill die
TG: most tragic moment ever liek if you crey every time
GG: i dont really get what youre talking about but im pretty sure i didnt come from a meteor
TG: yeah that was basically just me shitting around
TG: if you ever find out youre a meteor baby though tell me cuz that would be fucking awesome
GG: okay!!!!! :D
TG: sweet
TG: oh hey looks like its dinnertime
GG: so early? i thought dinner was what you ate in the evening
TG: well yeah but its later for me
TG: i schooled you on timezones last time remember
GG: oh yeah :o
GG: okay i hope you enjoy dinner then
TG: well id hate to dash your hopes so i guess ill sbandon my original plan to have the shittiest dinner imaginable
TG: see ya

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --

Jade giggled a little as she read Dave's last few lines. Then, she looked out the window at the sun. Still a while before John gets home... Jade thought. It was probably the best time to go outside. She could spend the rest of her afternoon outside with Bec without running into John after he got home from school.

She woofed at Bec, telling him to go outside and wait for her. As he left, she set about John-proofing her room. She set up noise traps made from things she'd scavenged off the street and around the house. They were like the traps she used to surround Grandpa's house with - nothing dangerous, just stuff that would make a lot of noise and scare away whatever triggered the trap. She'd started doing this the same night after John had gone in her room. Jade knew this place wasn't like her island, and John's dad would probably try to convince her she didn't need to set these things up, but it helped calm down the voice in the back of her head that still wasn't sure where her next meal would come from.

When she had everything set up the way she wanted, she grabbed one of her library books and climbed out the window, ready to find a good spot to curl up with Bec until dinner.

John tapped his toes inside his shoe, trying not to bug anyone else with his nervous energy. There was only a few minutes left in the school day, and his English teacher was trying to explain how to write a five-paragraph essay. He sorta wanted to pay attention, because he felt bad about how often he spaced out during this class, but also essays were really boring. Besides, he had super important things to do when class was over.

The clock ticked forward slowly, bringing him closer and closer to the end of the day. John's tapping grew bigger and bigger, until he was practically bouncing in his seat. Just as the teacher looked ready to call him out, the final bell rang, and John shot out of his seat, flinging his backpack on as he ran out the door in front of his slower classmates.

Once he got out in the hallway, he commenced his very important mission - tracking down two of his friends to hand over his birthday invitations before he had to get on the bus to go home. Missing the bus meant either taking a full hour to walk home or giving Dad an embarrassing phone call, so John wanted to find his friends as fast as possible.

He zipped past the other students, weaving around clumps of immobile classmates on his way to the central courtyard. The doors to the outside created a small bottleneck, forcing John to bob impatiently as he waited for the crowd to slowly move forward.

When he got outside, he was finally able to maneuver freely again. He dodged groups of students left and right, searching for his friends before they got picked up by whoever was running their carpool today. He quickly got tired of searching on the ground and jumped on a bench, which gave him the vantage point he needed - both of the friends he was looking for were waiting by the parking lot. He jumped back off the bench and made a beeline for them (which was a really weird phrase, now that he thought about it - bees flew in anything but a straight line!)

He reached them in plenty of time. He couldn't even see the other people in their carpool anywhere. "Gina! Alan! Hey!" John made his greeting as he came to a quick stop next to them.

Gina turned sharply, one of her arms raised defensively. She lowered it when she saw John standing there. "Jeez, John, you scared the crap out of me. What's with the rapid approach?"

"One sec..." John slung his backpack off and rifled through it for the oh-so-important envelopes. Once he found them, he brandished them triumphantly. "Here! Invitations to my birthday party this Saturday!"

"This Saturday?" Alan asked as he and Gina took the envelopes. "Way to leave this to the last second, man."

John shrugged. "I couldn't decide what I wanted to do, so my dad finally suggested we just host a party at home."

"So, like every other party you've had ever." Gina pocketed her invitation without opening it. "Got any new plans at all, or is this basically just John Egbert's Birthday Party, Version Thirteen?"

"Well, there aren't any plans, really." Except a viewing of the instant classic Con Air, but really that went without saying. "Oh, you guys will get to meet Jade, though!"

Gina looked at him, very perplexed. "Jade? Is she a new student or something? I've never heard of her before."

John laughed. "No, Jade's my sister! Well, sort of my sister. She's really like my second cousin I think? But her grandpa died and Dad was the closest relative he had, so she lives with us now."

"Huh," Alan said. He still looked a little confused, and Gina seemed more lost than ever, but the arrival of their carpooling group put off any more conversation. "Well, guess we'll see you later, John."

"Yeah, see you guys later!" He waved as they piled into a minivan piloted by Alan's upbeat mom. He gave her a wave, too, but she didn't notice in the chaos of getting her car settled. He might have tried a little harder to get her attention, but he still had a bus to catch, after all.

He made his way to the bus stop at a pretty quick pace, but nothing like the headlong rush he'd been going at before. As he walked, he thought about how weird it was that his friends didn't really know about Jade. He hadn't really talked to Gina and Alan in a while - being in different classes this year had really cut down on the amount of time they spent together - but still, Jade had been part of his life for months now. He thought she must have come up at least once or twice.

Thinking about Jade reminded him that she still wasn't too happy with him, either. He'd apologized to her after Dad's talk, but she hadn't really accepted it for some reason. He'd have to figure out some way to convince her to forgive him before Saturday, or his birthday party would get super awkward.

John refused to think about that for much longer, though. It was his birthday, after all (or it would be really soon), and it was going to be awesome!

Chapter Text

"Yes, five large pizzas, please," Paul ordered, pinching the phone between his head and shoulder as he rifled through his recipe box. "Three cheese, two pepperoni. Nothing else, but could you deliver those around twelve thirty, please?" He listened to the employee of the local pizza joint run through his order, confirming what he wanted. After he gave his credit card information, he thanked the gentleman for his assistance and hung up.

With lunch taken care of, he could turn his full attention to the birthday cakes. He had three planned. For John, there was the family's traditional vanilla cake, a recipe passed down from Nanna's side of the family, which would of course get a buttercream frosting. For John's friends, he'd gotten a red velvet cake mix that would be getting a cream cheese frosting on top. Finally, he'd searched online for a cake that would be safe for dogs to eat, since he was sure Jade would want Bec to join in the festivities. He'd discovered a carob and honey cake that looked very interesting - if no one else ate it, he'd certainly finish it off at least.

The doorbell rang as he started preparing his baking supplies. Footsteps thumped upstairs, and he heard John yell "I'll get it!" as he galloped down the steps. A moment later, John's excited chatter with his schoolmates filled the living room.

Paul considered suggesting to John to keep the noise level down for Jade's sake, but ultimately he chose not to. There was only so much he could do to nurture their relationship in a healthy direction. He'd done his best to get the pair to understand each other, but at this point it would have to be up to them.

John swung his controller this way and that, trying to get the highest score he could before time ran out. Swinging the controller around didn't have any mechanical effect, of course - this was an Xbox 360, not one of those fancy new Wiis everyone seemed to have these days - but the psychological effect was obviously critical to his success.

Sadly, even his most exaggerated of controller lifts didn't help his skater get the air he needed for the best tricks, and Jeff ended up the winner of the round. "Oh yeah, I'm the shredding king!" he crowed.

"If everyone wasted as much of their time on this stupid game as you do, they'd be just as good," Gina said as she moved toward the Xbox. "Let's try a racing game, see how good you are at that."

"Does John even own any racing games?" Robby asked from his slouched position on the couch, the opposite side of where John was sitting.

"Gina gave me one for my birthday last year," John answered as he shook out his hands in preparation for the next round of gaming. He didn't play these kinds of games much on his own, but his friends were all into them so he tried to stay at least basically good at playing them.

The doorbell rang before Gina finished setting things up for their first race. "Go ahead and play a round without me," John said as he carefully moved from his spot on the couch towards the door. His friends all grunted, completely focused on the game now.

John answered the door to find Maria, the last of his friends that he'd invited, waiting with her mom on the doorstep. "Hey Maria! Come on in!" John moved aside to let Maria pass him and get inside. After a quick goodbye to her mom, Maria entered his house.

She shook her head at the others fondly when she saw what they were up to. "Really, guys? The car one again?"

"It is the pinnacle of racing games," Gina replied. "Customizable cars with thirty choices for the wheels alone. Over a hundred tracks to play on, not including the player creations. The most realistic manual transmission simulations known to mankind. The only thing that could make this game even better would be a decent internet connection here so I could play against some real racers instead of you losers."

"Your life is so difficult," Alan murmured, intent on winning the race.

Maria just shook her head again and took John's old spot on the couch, placing her present with the others that were piled up on the coffee table. With his previous seat taken, John had the choice of sitting on the ground with the others, or taking the middle of the couch between Maria and Robby. Normally it'd be no contest - couch would win every time, no questions asked - but Robby was more Jeff's friend than John's. He'd mostly been invited because he was right there when Jeff got his invitation, and John felt like it would have been pretty rude to exclude him.

Ultimately, comfort won out over potentially awkward social interactions, and so John flopped onto the middle of the couch. Both Maria and Robby glared at him a little for his dramatic sitting, but Maria's glare seemed a lot more playful than Robby's. He could glare all he wanted, though - this was John's birthday party, and he could do a belly flop from the balcony onto the couch if that was what he wanted!

John eyed the landing above the couch, briefly considering whether that was worth trying. He didn't want to risk it while his friends were there, though, in case he ended up looking stupid, so he tucked the idea away for another time.

Gina, Alan, and Jeff's race finally ended, with Gina the clear winner. Alan had put up a good fight, but Jeff was just barely ahead of last place. Robby laughed harshly at the results. "Fuck, Jeff, you sucked shit on that run."

John winced at Robby's words. "Uh, my dad's really not so cool with the heavy swears, Robby, so - "

"Fuck your dad, man," Robby interrupted. "And it's Rob, not Robby. Robby's a name for whiny little babies that still wet the bed."

John smiled nervously, not really sure how to get Robby - or, well, Rob? - to follow his dad's rules without making a scene. Jeff came to his rescue by chiming in. "Rob, seriously, Mr. Egbert will kick you out if he hears you swearing like that. He'll be nice about it, but still. Keep it PG."

Rob scoffed and crossed his arms. "Whatever," he said, and then, under his breath, "Might as well get tossed, it's not like this is a real fucking party anyway." John was starting to regret inviting him a little.

"Okay, who's playing this round?" Gina asked as she set up the next race. Alan kept hold of his controller, obviously ready to give it another go, while Jeff offered his controller to those on the couch. "Any of you want to try a race? It'd be hard to do worse than I did."

"I'll stick to my strategy games, thanks," Maria refused genially. After glancing at Rob, who seemed determined to sulk on the couch for the whole party, John maneuvered around the coffee table to sit on the floor with the others, conscious of the controller's wire. "I haven't actually played this one much without you guys, so I'm probably gonna suck this race," he warned.

Alan shrugged. "It's all in good fun. Gina's gonna win anyway, so it's not like we're actually competing."

"That flimsy attitude is exactly why you never win, Alan," Gina replied.

"Yeah, that plus the fact that I don't actually care. That's a pretty big factor in all this."

Gina nudged him playfully, a move he returned. John smiled at them, then caught sight of Jade moving from her room towards the kitchen. "Jade!" John almost yelled, remembering in time that he was indoors and also Jade was only like ten feet away. All his friends turned to see who he was looking at, and Jade froze in the face of their attention, her face smooth of any expression and her eyes darting back and forth between all of them.

John held his controller up at her. "You wanna play a round with us?" he offered. Jade minutely shook her head and sidled towards the kitchen. "You sure? These guys will probably be your classmates next year, you know!" That didn't change her mind at all, it seemed, as she just shook her head again and quickly ducked into the kitchen. John sighed in his head - looked like Jade was still mad at him about the whole Pesterchum thing. He'd hoped she would've let it go for one day, or even just one game. Guess that was too much to hope for.

He picked up his controller again, ready to try his hand at racing. All his friends were still staring at the entrance to the kitchen. "Uh, guys? Hello? I thought we were about to get creamed by Gina here."

Gina turned to look at him, one eyebrow half-raised. "So that was Jade?"

"Yeah?" That seemed like a pretty silly question to John - he'd said her name and everything, after all!

Jeff looked at him with a baffled expression. "Who's Jade?"

John groaned. "Really, Jeff? You too? She's my sister! How come none of you know about her?"

"Your sister?" Now Maria looked completely confused. "Like a long-lost twin? Or have you been hiding her from us all this time somehow?"

"She's not actually - Ugh!" John exhaled heavily. "It's a complicated thing that I don't really wanna get into right now. I mentioned her back in February, remember? How she was moving in and all?"

John's friends all shared a look, like they were trying to remember what he was talking about. Finally, Alan shrugged. "I guess you did mention something like that, yeah. Guess we forgot about it somehow."

Rob snorted. "Not hard to forget a brainless little shithead like that," he muttered.

"Hey!" John shouted sharply. "Don't talk about her like that!" His hands tightened around his controller.

Rob just rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure. Don't blow a fuse, it was just a joke." John frowned, not sure he wanted to leave things there, but Gina decided to start the race right then, and he didn't want to miss out on his chance at second place. His gut felt sour for the next hour, though, and not even the delicious smell of pizza when it finally arrived could overcome that feeling.

Everyone crowded around the tiny table in the kitchen, with extra chairs brought out of storage. Pizza boxes dominated the center of the table, and everyone balanced their plates wherever they could find a spare bit of table space. Jade and Dad took the corner closest to the outside door for their own, Bec sitting calmly at Jade's side. John sat on the opposite side, surrounded by his friends. He watched his dad talk under his breath to Jade, and for a moment he almost wished it was just the three of them. Then Alan tried to sneak a crust off Maria's plate, and she threatened to dump her soda on his head in retaliation, and John got swept up in being with his friends again.

After most of the pizza had been eaten, Dad served out cake for everyone. There was way too much, like always, but John had gotten his favorite so he didn't complain about it too much. With cake in hand, everyone made their way to the living room, where the pile of presents beckoned to John. He took his place of honor on the couch, and his friends arranged themselves on the floor around the table. Dad leaned against the mantelpiece, keeping to the outskirts of the party, while Jade and Bec stood near the kitchen doorway.

"Here." Gina pulled a present off the table and tossed it in his lap. John had to juggle cake and present for a moment to make sure he didn't drop either. "You can unwrap mine first."

John made a face at her. "Gina, the entire point of it being my birthday party is that I get to pick which present I unwrap."

Gina leaned back, completely unaffected by his stone-cold logic. "I just cut through half an hour of you shaking every present ten times. That means we're half an hour closer to watching that Nic Cage movie you keep making us watch every year. You're welcome."

John drummed his fingers on the present Gina had tossed at him. He was still a little bugged she'd swept right past one of his favorite traditions (although secretly every birthday tradition was one of his favorites), but the promise of seeing Cameron Poe's harrowing adventure and heartwarming reunion with his family sooner rather than later won him over. With that, he gave Gina a quick conceding smile and carefully ripped the wrapping away.

Under the layer of wrapping paper was a plain box held closed with regular tape. He appreciated that - too many people just wrapped the present, which could totally give away what the present was just by the shape of it. Also, boxing the present gave you a prime pranking opportunity.

With that in mind, he carefully pulled the tape off the box, ignoring a few exaggerated sighs or snickers from his friends. Just because none of them had ever retaliated against his birthday pranks before didn't mean they wouldn't start now! When the tape was gone, he pushed the box flaps in rather than pulling them outward. Nothing popped out or squirted in his face, so it looked like he was in the clear.

Since he didn't see anything to worry about, John could now focus on the actual gift. He lifted it out and looked it over. "A fourth controller?"

"Yeah, it's about time you had one," Gina replied. "Now we can get a proper race going."

John smiled and placed the controller on the seat next to him. "Thanks, Gina! It'll be fun to have a full group playing together." John reached for the next present, a tiny one almost lost amongst the others. "That one's mine," Jeff said.

Jeff's present turned out to be smoke pellets, a pranking tool John had had his eyes on for a while. Rob, who'd probably gotten his present at the same time, gave him a whoopie cushion wrapped haphazardly in newspaper. Maria's gift was a CD ("The piano in most of these is really impressive," she'd said as he looked over the track list), and Alan's present was a new video game. It looked like some kind of fighting game - another one he'd play mostly with his friends, probably. Each present was given the same careful inspection as Gina's, to ensure he would retain his title as the pranking king.

John looked at the mounting of wrapping paper in front of him once he'd finished unwrapping his friends' presents, trying to see if he'd missed the present from his dad. "Did you wanna wait until Monday to do family presents?" he asked.

Dad chuckled. "Why don't you check what you're sitting on?"

John bounced in his seat and noticed the cushion did feel a little harder than usual. He jumped up and tried to lift the cushion, but it was way heavier than he was expecting. He gave his dad a quick grin, both in anticipation of the gift and in appreciation of the excellent prank he'd managed to set up.

After some investigating, John found a zipper in the back of the cushion, one which he examined carefully before pulling - he wasn't going to fall for a prank within a prank! Once his examination was complete, he slowly unzipped the cushion, still prepared for anything his dad could throw at him. (Figuratively, of course - there were too many potential innocents around for anything like that.)

With the zipper undone, the excitement became too much for John to keep his careful pace. He thrust his hands inside and grasped the edges of something really big. He pulled it out in several jerking motions, wrestling it out of its cushion wrapping. When he finally had it out, he took a moment to get his breath back before looking it over. It had a busy blue background for a cover, and the title was Colonel Sassacre's Daunting Text of Magical Frivolity and Practical Japery. "A copy of Colonel Sassacre's book?" He'd head of Sassacre's book, of course, any prankster worth his sneezing powder knew about Sassacre, but he hadn't been able to find a copy for himself yet.

"Not just any copy," his father replied. "That book belonged to Colonel Sassacre himself. Your Nanna passed it down to me, and now I pass it down to you." He smiled proudly at John. "I know you'll put it to great use, son."

John spread his fingers over the cover, hardly able to believe he was holding the same book Sassacre had once owned. He couldn't get his head around how cool that was. He just stared at the book, ignoring his friends and their restless mutters. None of them really understood the art of being a prankster, or how it was a family tradition - practically the family business, in fact. None of them would understand just how much this meant to John.

"Um..." Jade's voice broke John out of his focused wonder. He looked up to see her presenting her own gift. "Your dad helped me pick this out when you were at your piano lesson last week," she explained as John took it from her. It wasn't much to look at - lumpy from the bad wrapping job - but he couldn't remember the last time getting a gift from someone other than his dad had made him feel so happy.

He didn't waste time in unwrapping the present. He didn't even bother checking for pranks in the wrapping - Jade didn't know anything about pranking, after all. After he ripped the wrapping off, he was left with a decently sized book on a coding language he'd been struggling with recently. He'd talked about his problems once or twice at dinner, but he hadn't actually expected any help with it - his dad wasn't much good with computers. Flipping through, it looked like it was really informative and easy to understand. "This looks exactly like what I need! Thanks, Jade!"

Jade smiled back, relaxing a little. He'd barely even noticed how tense she'd been up until that moment. He only had a moment to appreciate that, though, before Rob muttered, "Surprised the bitch can even read."

John didn't remember jumping over the table, or burying his fist in Rob's face. The next thing he knew, Jeff was pulling him off the other boy. Everyone seemed almost frozen except his father, who quickly moved to Rob's side and assessed his injuries, ignoring Rob's howls of anger. "Doesn't look worse than a bloody nose and possibly a black eye," he said after a few moments of consideration. "I'll get you some tissues, and the rest of you should start calling your parents. The party is over." Dad fixed his stern gaze on John. "To your room. Now."

John nodded meekly and walked quietly upstairs. He sat on his bed and waited as each of his friends got picked up by surprised parents. He couldn't hear what his dad said to any of them, but it didn't sound good, especially when Jeff's dad arrived to pick him and Rob up. That conversation went on for a lot longer than John could stand, but finally they left, with no one shouting but Rob.

Now all he had to do was wait.

Paul watched out the door as the last of John's friends left, trying to figure out what to do now. He'd never expected his son to do anything so violent, even when provoked. He'd always tried to instill peaceful instincts in the boy, so that he'd only fight as an emergency measure. It looked as though those attempts hadn't succeeded.

He sighed as he closed the door and turned back into the living room. Looking around, he decided to clean up a little to give himself more time before talking to John. The Lord knows I'll need all the time I can get to figure out what I should say to him. John's presents all moved to the coffee table, and the wrapping paper was gathered into a large trash bag, joined by the abandoned pieces of cake. Paul allowed himself a selfish moment of sorrow at that - he'd worked hard on those cakes, after all, and it was a shame they hadn't been able to finish.

He considered cleaning up the kitchen, too, but that would have just been a silly attempt at stalling. He knew this conversation had to be done, and it was better to have it now.

Paul walked halfway up the stairs before he realized he should have checked on Jade, as well. He'd seen the way she and Bec had bristled right before John leapt at the other boy, but the pair had disappeared while he was looking Robby over for injuries. That had seemed like a good thing at the time, but now he would need to make sure she didn't need him, either. One child at a time, he thought. There's only so much I can do at once.

He walked slowly down the hallway, trying to give himself as much time as possible to ready himself for what was sure to be a very difficult conversation. The hallway was only so long, though, and soon enough he found himself in front of John's open door. He took one more moment to collect his thoughts before stepping inside.

John was sitting on his bed, his head hung contritely. He didn't look up as Paul entered the room, which had always been a sign of true remorse for him. It was the same way he'd looked when he'd tried to boil some slime on the stove and melted a hole through their best pot. From that alone, Paul knew this talk would be easier than he'd feared. He sat on the bed next to his son and said, "You understand why I sent all your friends home, right, John?"

"Yeah," he said quietly.

Paul waited a few moments to see if John would elaborate. "You shouldn't have attacked Robby, John. Violence should never be your first response."

John's head sunk even further, and his voice came out quieter than before. "I know. I'm sorry."

"You'll have to make that apology to Robby, not me. He's the one you injured, after all."

John sniffed a little. "He just - he kept saying mean stuff about me and Jade, and I - I - " John's voice petered out as he took gulping breaths, obviously trying not to cry.

Paul rubbed John's back and said, "It's okay, John. It's okay." John practically slammed into his father in response, holding him in a desperate hug as he cried. Paul continued rubbing his back and made soothing noises, letting the boy vent his stress. When John seemed a little calmer, Paul spoke again. "Robby was certainly provoking you, and I understand why you felt the need to lash out. However, it's when others are attacking you that you need to be the most mindful. What do you think would have happened if you hadn't fought Robby?"

"You woulda kicked him out," John said into Paul's torso, his words muffled.

"That's right," he answered. "That boy would've flown halfway to Idaho if I'd had my way." John giggled at that, his grip relaxing a little. "And then your party could have continued with your other friends the way it was supposed to, without such a boorish guest. Wouldn't that have been better?"

"Mm-hm," John mumbled and nodded at the same time. He gripped tighter again. "I'm really sorry, Dad. I just wasn't thinking."

"I understand, son. I am proud of you for caring about Jade so strongly. I just wish you would show that care in a better way."

John nodded against his chest again, holding on for a few more moments before sitting back and readjusting his glasses, rubbing at his eyes a little in the process. "I'll think things through next time, I promise. And I'll say sorry to Rob first thing on Monday."

Paul smiled proudly at his son. "That sounds perfect, my boy. I know you'll do the right thing." John gave him a wobbly bucktoothed smile back before Paul left the room.

With John sorted as well as he could be right then, Paul knew he had to check in on Jade, as well. Leaving her alone too long would set a bad precedent, even if all he wanted to do was have a few quiet moments with his pipe and relax. That wouldn't be fair to Jade, though, and doing his best for the children would always have to come first.

That thought brought to mind the letters he'd been avoiding thinking about, from the admittedly charming woman in New York with the professional relationship to Uncle Harley. Now's not the time, Paul, he scolded himself as he wrenched his thoughts back to Jade and the current predicament. He could worry about the future after the children had gone to bed.

He came downstairs and found Jade's door closed. He knocked and waited for a response, knowing Jade was especially sensitive about her privacy after John had invaded it several weeks ago. After a few moments, the door cracked open, just enough for Jade to see him. "Hi, Mr. Egbert," she said quietly.

"Hello, Jade," he replied. "Do you mind if I come in to talk with you a little?"

Jade stared at him a few moments, as though she was trying to get up her courage for something. He waited patiently, stepping back just enough so he didn't crowd her. That seemed to do the trick, as she quickly nodded and opened the door for him. "Thank you," he said sincerely as he passed into her room. He waited until she was sitting on her bed near the window before he pulled the computer chair out for himself. "How are you feeling?"

She shrugged. Bec jumped up onto the bed next to her and she started stroking him. "I'm okay. Is John okay?"

Paul nodded. "John is doing just fine." Belatedly he realized he should have checked John's hand for injuries - the boy wasn't used to punching, after all, and he could have easily hurt himself. Paul sighed internally. He'll tell me if it hurts a great deal, and I suppose a little pain will help reinforce today's lesson. This wasn't the time to think about John, though. "I wanted to apologize for what that boy said. He was very much out of line, and I would have thrown him out myself if John hadn't jumped in."

Jade shrugged again. "It's fine," she said, her face blank as it usually was when she wasn't sure how to respond to something.

Paul gave her another few moments before he spoke again. "Well, I want you to know that I don't condone that sort of behavior. If anyone is ever cruel to you like that, let me know and I will be sure they suffer the proper consequences. Okay?"

Jade nodded and flashed him a quick smile. "I understand, Mr. Egbert. Thank you." Her voice was a little brighter, which was probably the best he could hope for.

With that in mind, he stood up. "I'll let you know when dinner's ready, then. And if you ever want to talk to me, I'll listen." He waited for one last nod before he let himself out, closing the door behind him.

That... could have been worse, I suppose, he thought as he collapsed onto the couch, pulling his pipe out of his pocket. He was just about to light it when he remembered he'd decided not to smoke indoors anymore, out of respect to Jade's lungs. The island she'd grown up on had been far away from any industrial pollution, after all, and adjusting to the city air had been hard enough. He shouldn't compound the issue by making her home even smokier.

Paul sighed and put his pipe away. As tempting as having a good smoke was, he needed to put his feet up and just sit by himself for the moment. He still had to organize dinner, after all, and he would have to tell John exactly how grounded he was, too. Earlier the boy had been too raw, and going over his punishment would have done more harm than good. By dinnertime, though, he would have recovered enough to handle his punishment.

That was something to be dealt with later, though. For now, Paul leaned his head back and rested his eyes, trying to convince himself that he'd done the best a father could. After all, no one could expect anything more.

Chapter Text

Just like the previous week, the end of class on Monday found John jiggling in his seat. This time, though, he wasn't excited about seeing his friends. Instead, he was nervous about finding Rob. He'd looked for the other boy every chance he'd had all day, but it seemed like he'd vanished. John tried not to think about how hard he'd hit Rob, but every time his mind wandered off the lesson, he started thinking about Rob moaning in his bed at home, or stuck in the hospital hooked up to a dozen beeping machines, or worse. This is not how I wanted my real birthday to go, he grumbled internally. That just made him think about his dad's lecture again, and how he could've avoided the whole thing if he'd just thought a little. He barely stopped himself from groaning out loud and slumping forward onto his desk, but it was a really close thing.

The bell rang finally, letting John shuffle out of the room with the rest of his classmates. As he followed the glacial crowd (slow and crushing), he tried to think of where Rob would be after school. Jeff normally went straight home, since he lived close enough to walk. Did Rob go with him, or go to his own home? His parents didn't pick him up, as far as John knew, but he didn't really know much about the guy except that he could be a real shithead sometimes. He had to be okay most of the time, though, or Jeff wouldn't hang out with him. Right?

John didn't realize the crowd had swept him all the way outside until he almost fell over a bench. He decided to look for Rob one last time before getting on the bus. Dad can't blame me for not apologizing when I can't even find the guy, John reasoned. He probably wasn't part of any clubs, after all, so he'd either be somewhere around the parking lot or just down the hill, which would be easy to search quickly. Objective obtained, John set out on his quest.

He didn't see Rob anywhere in the main parking lot, which wasn't that much of a surprise - if he'd been hanging around where everyone else was, John would've found him a lot earlier. The next place to check was the bottom of the hill, where the parking lot road met up with the normal one. Sometimes kids liked to hang out there for a while before heading off their separate ways. He'd have just enough time to give Rob his apology before getting back up the hill for the bus. It was the perfect plan!

When he reached the bottom, ignoring all the disgruntled parents trying to get out of the parking lot, he finally saw Rob hanging with a bunch of other boys. Yes! I have the best ideas! John crowed to himself. He started bounding over to Rob, but then he remembered why he was looking for the other boy in the first place. That nipped his excitement in the butt. He winced as he drew closer and realized Rob had a really nasty black eye. That wasn't going to make apologizing any easier.

Rob finally noticed John just as he was walking up on his group of friends. The almost relaxed smile he'd had dropped into a scowl so fast, John almost wanted to ask if he'd gotten whiplash. "What the fuck, Egbert? Come to see your handiwork in person?"

John shook his head exuberantly. "No no no, not at all! I wanted to apologize for that, actually. It was a pretty crappy thing for me to do. My dad's always saying 'Violence never solves anything,' and -"

"Sounds like your dad's a giant pussy, then," one of Rob's friends interrupted, earning a laugh from the rest of the group.

John frowned. That was definitely not the kind of comment he thought he'd get when he was imagining how this conversation would go. Part of him really wanted to defend his dad, or his dad's honor, or whatever, but he heard his dad's voice in the back of his head telling him to just ignore the other boys. "Look, I really am sorry for punching you, I -"

"Wow, can't believe you let a piece of shit like this wimp cold-cock you, Robby," another boy said, turning his back on John.

Rob shoved that boy roughly. "Like I knew he'd go all psycho on me! You try going to one of his lame-ass parties and see how long you can stay awake. I was pretty much asleep when he jumped me."

"But look at him," a different boy said as he stepped towards John, who was suddenly getting a really bad feeling about the whole situation. "He looks like he'd break his own hand if he tried punching anything."

"Yeah, I think I need to see a rematch, or else I'm gonna start questioning where that black eye of yours really came from."

"A rematch?" John squeaked a little as he backed away. He cursed puberty and everything it wrought on his poor unsuspecting body, as that little sign of weakness seemed to make the boys in front of him even more bloodthirsty. "Uh, can I just concede? I'm sure Rob is much better at fighting than me, and I don't want to get into any trouble here -"

"Holy shit, Rob, what kind of lame ass bitchfest did you get yourself invited to? I wanna punch this kid myself."

Frowning, John said without any forethought, "I'm not a kid, I'm the same age as you guys. I'm probably older, even." Then his brain caught up with what he was saying, and he slapped a hand over his mouth before he could say anything else stupid that would rile them up more.

All the boys were facing him now, and nobody was laughing anymore. "Older than us, huh?" One of the boys stepped closer to him, the others falling in rank behind him. "Not any bigger, though, and clearly much, much dumber." John took a few slow steps backward, the horde of boys matching his pace. "You know, I think Rob deserves a little payback for the shiner you gave him. What d'you say?"

A furious bark from behind the boys interrupted John before he could even think of saying something. They all turned, letting John see his angelic savior - Jade, with her hand resting on Bec's neck. The dog subsided into a low vicious growl as he stared down Rob and his friends. John suddenly remembered that Bec had been in the same jungle as Jade. While both of them seemed normal most of the time (if a little weird), Jade could go cold and stiff and scary at a moment's notice. Up until now, John had never noticed Bec could do the same thing and be a hundred times scarier for it. Now he understood why everyone told stories about the Big Bad Wolf.

Jade's face was calm, like she wasn't the only thing standing between a hellbeast and a terrifying massacre. "I'd get out of here - Bec doesn't like leashes," Jade stated, drawing attention to the absolute lack of anything that could conceivably hold Bec back.

When she said that, the hints of bravado some of the boys had been showing disappeared instantly. They gave each other quick looks before shuffling roughly past John. He bounced over to Jade once it was clear he wasn't about to end up a smear on the pavement. "Man, you have like, the best timing in the entire world. Are you actually a superhero? Maybe this is all your origin story and I'll end up being your sidekick. Or that one person who knows who you really are, like Batman's butler. His name was Albert. Or Alfred. One of those. Wait," John stopped himself short, "why are you here? It takes like an hour to walk home from here."

Jade shrugged. "Bec and I usually walk pretty far."

"Oh. Okay." An awkward silence fell over the two. John looked Jade over, trying to figure out how she was feeling, but she seemed pretty normal. Her face was a calm sort of blankness - not stressed or guarded or anything, just... blank. He'd mostly gotten used to her strangeness, but seeing her right after a full day of classes reminded him just how different Jade was. Thinking about Rob and the boys with him, though, it was a good kind of different.

A yellow bus trundled down the street, breaking John out of his musings. "Oh crap, the bus!" John shouted. I totally forgot after all that stuff with Rob. He groaned and collapsed into a little pile. Now I'm gonna have to go back to the school's office and call Dad and wait for him to pick me up.... Ugh.

Bec's nose poked underneath his arms after a few moments. "Bah!" John collapsed backward, wincing a little as the books in his backpack dug into his back. Soon Jade and Bec were standing over him with somehow identical expressions. "Uh. Hi."

A few moments passed before Jade offered her hand. "Come on. Let's walk home together."

John stared at her hand. He hadn't expected the offer at all, considering how standoffish Jade had been recently. Once his brain caught up, though, he took the hand eagerly, pulling himself to his feet. "Thanks," he said as he brushed himself off.

"You're welcome," Jade replied before starting down the street, Bec trotting at her heels. John had to jog a bit to keep up - the other two slowed down once they noticed.

The trio walked in relative silence for a few blocks. Bec was the most active of the three, pulling ahead slightly to investigate some exciting scent, and hanging behind until he was satisfied he knew everything he needed to know. Jade kept a perfect pace, never more than two or three steps from his side, but never breaking her own stride until they reached a street crossing. John puttered along beside the pair, feeling a little like an outsider somehow.

"You're really good at pissing people off, aren't you?" Jade said bluntly after a few minutes of walking.

John blinked, then said, "Wow, that's a pretty shitty way to start a conversation." Jade didn't react at all to that. She just kept walking, her eyes focused on Bec. When he realized Jade wasn't going to say anything else, he sighed. "I guess that is true, though. I don't know why, people just keep getting mad at me. Not Dad, but my classmates, and some people at church..." He scuffed his feet along the ground a little. "Even you."

Jade didn't say anything for a little while, but her mouth had a little quirk to it that John guessed meant she was thinking hard about something. When she seemed to have all her thoughts in order, she said evenly, "When I was growing up, there wasn't much that was mine. I had a few things of my own, stuff I'd made myself, but most of the things in our place belonged to Grandpa." Her voice didn't break, to John's surprise. She just kept talking in that same neutral voice. "When he died, I used his stuff, but it always felt like I was just borrowing it, not like it belonged to me." She paused, her tongue moving around in her mouth like she was trying to feel out the right words. "Grandpa left me a lot of his stuff, and your dad's given me a lot, too, but... I like doing things for myself, too." She stopped talking and looked at John sideways, like she was asking if he understood what she meant.

John thought about just nodding and pretending like he understood, but he knew that wouldn't really fix anything between him and Jade, just push the problem off until later. Instead, he thought back to that day in the tree, when he realized how overwhelming his little town was for someone who'd only known one other human most of her life.

Now he tried to imagine growing up like Jade had, with no supermarkets, toy stores, or malls. Everything she had must have come from her own two hands or from her grandpa. And then she came here, where more people kept giving her stuff, but everything still went through someone else first... so how did what he did hurt her?

John frowned as he started thinking harder. So I was in her room, and I read that conversation between her and TG, and... He groaned inside his head. I told her she shouldn't make her own friends because I am a giant douchelord. Now that he wasn't caught up in the anger he'd had at that moment, and he didn't have birthday party plans to distract him, he really couldn't understand why he'd said that to her. I'd be mad at me too if I told me I couldn't have any friends. Briefly he tried to imagine what kind of situation would lead to him arguing with himself like that (time travel would clearly have to be a factor), but he forced himself back on track pretty quickly.

It seemed obvious now why Jade had stayed mad at him for so long. Now all he had to do was apologize - for real this time, and not the wimpy half-apology he'd given before just so he wouldn't get in trouble with his dad. "Hey Jade?" he said, breaking the silence of the last few minutes. She looked up, her attention having shifted onto Bec while John was thinking. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you for talking to that TG guy. He didn't really seem like that bad of a guy, and you're smart enough not to do anything stupid like I said you would."

Jade studied his face like she was checking off a list in her head. John didn't really know what she was looking for, but he tried to look as sincere as possible. Real sincerity, too, not the fake sincerity he'd been practicing for his pranks. Something real must have come across, because Jade smiled, a wide happy grin he hadn't seen from her since before the whole fight started. "Good!" she said simply before turning back to Bec.

John waited a bit to see if Jade would say anything else, but she just kept walking, accepting a stick from Bec and praising him for being such a good boy. Okay, I guess we'll work on how to accept apologies, John thought. He didn't mind, but other people would probably want a little more than just 'good'.

Things felt good between them, though, and John hadn't ever gotten a chance to really talk about what he'd read from TG, and so he asked, "So is that guy always that ridiculous, or was that a special situation or something?"

Jade looked at him in confusion for a moment before comprehending what he meant. "Oh, Dave! Yeah, he's pretty much always like that. He told me the first time I talked to him that he lies basically all the time, but I think he was lying about that too." She laughed a little. "He's pretty funny either way."

John smiled, but his expression was twisted a little by concern. "So... he told you his name is Dave?" he tried to ask casually, not wanting a repeat of the last time they'd had a conversation like this.

Jade looked at him warily. "Yeah, he called himself Dave during one of his weird long stories and then told me he didn't care if I know his real name. He also told me he lives somewhere called Houston and he's in middle school." She stopped talking, but the look on her face kept saying plenty.

John nodded slowly. "Okay. Sounds like a pretty cool guy."

Jade giggled at that. "Yeah, he has a lot to say about what's cool or not cool, and how he firmly belongs in the former category. But only because he's not cool?" She tilted her head to the side a little, like Bec trying to figure out where some noise was coming from. "He was explaining it to me yesterday and it still doesn't really make sense, but I'll figure it out eventually."

"Haha, yeah, I'm sure you will. And then you will be the cool guy and you can teach Dave all about being cool," John said.

"Yes!" Jade exclaimed, and the pair continued talking and laughing all the way home.

Chapter Text

Plunk plunk plunk-plunk. No, that's not right.

Plunk plunk-plunk plunk plunk. Not like that, either.

Plunk-plunk plunk-plunk-plunk plunk plunk plunk. No!

"Jade?" John's dad called from the couch, pausing in his perusal of the day's paper. "Are you okay?"

Jade blinked and turned from the piano to face him. "Yeah, of course I am." The timing of his question confused her - other times he'd asked her something like that, there'd been some kind of obvious reason, like after John's birthday party a few weeks ago. Right now she was just practicing the piano, though; why wouldn't she be okay?

He raised one of his eyebrows a little. "You were starting to growl."

Oh. She hadn't even noticed. Jade glanced back at the piano and frowned. "Sorry, I'm just not doing well with this music..."

"No apologies necessary," he said immediately. "What sort of troubles are you having, exactly?"

Jade ran her hands lightly over the keys as she tried to figure out the right words for what she was feeling. "I have this song... in my head, and... it's not playing right, no matter how many times I try." She snuffed hard at the piano. "It just doesn't work."

Behind her, Mr. Egbert chuckled. "Composing is a difficult art, especially when you have no formal training with the instrument you're trying to compose for. Perseverance is the key to success, so keep working at it." Jade turned and saw him smiling. "It took John several months of practice before he could even play with both hands, you know."

Jade nodded, but frowned as she turned back to the piano. It's right there, though, she thought. And it's not even anything that hard. I should be able to play it myself.

The couch creaked a little, and Jade turned again to see John's dad heading towards the front door. Probably getting the mail. "It's good to take a break from time to time, as well, especially when you're frustrated. Sometimes taking a break is what your body and your brain really needs."

"Okay." She gave the piano one last frown before standing. She stretched her arms out and yawned. The clock on the mantelpiece told her she'd been sitting there trying to perfect her tune for half an hour - not really long enough to get any work done in her opinion, but John's dad had a good point. Grandpa had always said the same sort of thing whenever she got frustrated at her latest failure.

Without a problem to solve, though, she found herself a little lost for what to do. Bec was napping in her room, resting after a grueling morning romp, and she'd just exhausted her latest set of library books. Pestering Dave was out of the question, too - he was off on some trip with his brother. He'd described it as a "non-stop express train to shame and pain", amongst other things, but she still couldn't tell when Dave was lying or telling the truth very well. There was always more internet to explore, but somehow she kept finding really awful people and she just didn't want to deal with that.

Having nothing to do was a pretty weird feeling. On the island, there was never enough time for all the things she needed to do, let alone what she wanted to do. Learning how to repair the machines Grandpa left behind was one of those necessities that turned into a passion. Still, she'd never had the chance to do things just because she wanted to. Her eyes drifted towards the piano again before she resolutely stepped away from the piano bench. I am going to take a break, she told herself sternly. No more stalling!

With nothing else to do, she decided to give John a visit. He'd been shut away in his room for a while now, so who knew what he was up to! Taking the stairs on all fours, she was in front of John's door in no time. She gave the door a quick knock, which John answered with a loud "Come in!"

She hadn't been in John's room much. The walls were covered with movie posters - John had tried to show her a few of them, but the characters didn't seem real and a lot of them had really bad science. That was something she just could not forgive. There were some books scattered around, along with a jacket and other random bits of clothing. She frowned - John's dad had been pretty clear when he told her how to deal with her dirty clothes. Were there different rules for different kinds of clothing? She added the question to her mental list of research topics.

The boy himself was sitting at his own computer in the far right corner of the room. He gave her a quick glance as she walked in. "Hey Jade," he said, already focusing on his computer again, "Give me a sec, I'm trying to figure out this syntax error I'm getting. Feel free to sit down or whatever."

Aha! A polite social invitation! It wasn't always easy when someone was telling her to do something and when they really meant she could choose what she wanted to do. There'd been several times at the library when she'd mixed up the two - luckily the librarians knew her pretty well by now and were always ready to help "smooth a few wrinkles" here and there (one of the librarians said that all the time; the phrase was starting to grow on Jade).

John and his dad were pretty easy for her to figure out on that front, which she was grateful for, really, but it still gave her a little thrill whenever she knew she'd interpreted someone correctly.

She decided to take a seat on John's bed, since he'd offered after all. His mattress seemed even softer than hers, and he had a whole pile of pillows clumped at one end. She pawed at one experimentally - it seemed pretty flat, which could explain why he had so many. It wasn't like he was used to getting by without anything, after all.

Jade leaned back and looked around at his room again. Hard to imagine growing up some place like this, she thought. How long had she lived here now? Several months at least, but she'd never bothered to keep track of the date before coming here. Following the turn of the seasons had been much more important, so she knew what sort of plants were going to be at their best, or how long she had to make repairs before the seasonal storms started rolling through again.

Here, though... everyone got their food from a grocery store, and the same foods seemed to be available all the time. Storms didn't cause half so much destruction, either, and there were so many people with so much more experience that she didn't have to do anything at all. Mr. Egbert had said at dinner once that a child's only job should be to do their best in school. She still couldn't quite imagine what that would be like, even though she'd been living without responsibility for months now.

Jade's gaze shifted to John, who was still scowling (or did scowling look different?) at his computer screen. If I'd grown up here, and he'd grown up there, she thought, what kind of people would we be? She knew John found it hard to imagine what growing up on her island had been like - he'd said as much to her months ago, when he'd followed her up that tree. That was the first time Jade felt like he'd really listened to her, not just filled in all her silences with his assumptions. If he'd lived on her island instead of her, or even with her...

"Argh!" John's shout shocked Jade into jumping to a squat, ready to pounce for the door or the window. "Why can't you just work?!"

Once she realized she wasn't in danger, Jade snorted. "What are you trying to do, anyway?"

John jumped. "Jade! Wow, you were so quiet I forgot you were here, ha ha." He waved his hand in her direction. "Come over here, maybe your latent technomancy abilities will make this work better."

Technomancy wasn't a word she knew, but it sounded like one of John's made-up things so she didn't worry about it too much. She walked up next to John and peered at his computer screen, which had several windows filled with computer code. "You know, I'm more hardware than software," she warned. "I dunno how much help I could be."

"Let me just explain what the code's supposed to do and you tell me if anything seems off," he replied. "So I'm trying to make just a simple 2D maze. Eventually it's gonna have randomly generated walls so you're going through a different maze literally every time you play, but for now I've just got a few pre-generated maps to pick from to make sure the walls actually work like walls and everything."

He waved vaguely at one of the windows; Jade couldn't figure out what he was talking about, but now seemed as good a time as any to practice polite nodding. "So the character can move around okay, and the collision detection is finally working - that took me months to get nailed down, it was this huge epic drama, I'll tell you about it some other time - but now I can't actually get the victory condition to trigger. When I comment out that part of the code it all works fine, but I get a different syntax error every time I try to put it back in." He leaned back in his chair and made a weird noise. It was almost like a growl, but it was more through his nose than when Bec growled. Another expression to look into later. "This game just refuses to be won!"

Jade kept nodding, not entirely sure when she was supposed to stop. John was still scowling (or maybe that was glaring - it was still hard for her to find a difference between the two) at the screen, his hands now moving frantically through the air. "I mean, I've checked the syntax like fifty times by now! I haven't missed a single semicolon, and all the tabs line up properly, too. This loop starts here and ends here, this one goes from here to here..." Now he was using the mouse to point his cursor around at various bits of the code. "This function is defined up here, so it's not returning void or anything, and this one is over -" He stopped for a moment. Then, he scrolled up and down the window a few times before flipping through the other windows in rapid succession. "Oh. I commented that function's definition out, huh." Now he was leaning into the computer again, typing a little here and there. "So I should probably move that to right here, just to make it neat, and if it all compiles properly..." he murmured.

He clicked a few things and another window popped up. This one had a series of lines scattered across a black background, as well as a blinking symbol in the upper right hand corner. Jade watched John quickly maneuver the blinking symbol through the maze, clearly something he'd done plenty of times before. Finally, the blinking symbol was in the lower left hand corner, the only other place in the maze where the border was broken. The maze was wiped away and replaced with a screen that said "YOU WIN!" in big flashing letters. Beneath that, in smaller text, were the words "THANKS FOR PLAYING".

"Yes!" John whooped, thrusting one fist in the air. "It works! It finally works!" Jade smiled as John kept laughing and yelling in celebration, even doing a little dance in his chair. He turned to Jade, a little out of breath and a beaming smile across his entire face. "That was totally awesome, Jade, thank you!"

Jade shrugged. "I didn't actually do anything, you know." Except nod a lot, and nodding didn't have that much power, right?

"You did plenty," John said, laying one hand on her shoulder and looking straight into her eyes. She twitched, suppressing the instinct to lash out against such an aggressive display. John kept talking, not noticing how she tensed and then relaxed. "You are so much better than a rubber duck." With that mysterious statement, he released her and turned back to his computer, already focusing on his code again.

Jade watched him work for a few more minutes, but he didn't try explaining anything to her and programming was something she had no real interest in. At least that ate up some time, she thought. Maybe Bec's woken up by now. She left John's room with a quiet bye, which he returned without looking at her.

Jade headed downstairs again, hoping she could go for another walk with her best friend. When she reached the stairs, she saw John's dad on the couch reading a piece of paper. He had a very complicated expression - his eyebrows were furrowed, like something was worrying him, but one side of his mouth was pulled up a little. Nobody here bared their teeth like that, so it must have been some kind of smile, but why would he be smiling and worried at the same time? "Mr. Egbert?" Jade called out as she came down the stairs.

"Ah!" He flinched and turned to face her. "Jade, you surprised me. I suppose you were up in John's room?" As he spoke, he placed the paper on the table.

Jade gave it a curious glance, but turned her attention back to John's dad. People found it rude when she looked at something else when she talked to them sometimes, and he didn't seem to want to talk about what he'd been reading. "Yeah, he was working on one of his coding projects. A maze."

John's dad chuckled. "Ah, so that's why he was shouting. I'm sure he'll tell me all about it at dinner, then. Which I suppose I should start preparing now," he added, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece. "Feel free to play outside with Bec until then, if you'd like."

"Okay." Jade watched him walk into the kitchen, leaving the day's mail on the coffee table. She looked at the paper he'd been reading, which she realized now was most likely a letter he'd received today. She was intensely curious about what could have caused the expression he'd been making. After a long moment of consideration, she briskly shook her head and walked into her room. It was Mr. Egbert's letter, after all. She couldn't just read it without his permission. I'll just have to ask him about it later, she thought. If he wants to tell me about it then, he will.

Chapter Text

John fiddled with his jacket and took another quick look at the clock. It had only been about twenty seconds since the last time he checked. He fussed with his jacket again. I can't believe I'm this nervous about playing the piano, he thought.

He looked around the room at Ms. Flinder's other students. Her lessons were always private sessions, so the only time he met any of the others was on his way in or out, or at these yearly recitals. There were a couple new faces this time around, and a few faces missing. Not everyone could keep taking lessons forever, after all.

John froze his fidgeting at that thought. What if I have to stop taking lessons? he thought. Piano lessons had been part of his life for years now. The particular days and hours had changed from time to time, but the lessons themselves hadn't stopped unless Ms. Flinder was unable to teach. He could handle stopping for a month or two, but for the rest of his life?

He looked around the green room again, unable to think of it as anything but his last time. He'd performed in this auditorium countless times, but now it was like seeing it all for the first time again. The carpet, a dull shade of tan, was missing a sizable chunk in one corner of the room. Cabinets lined the walls, most filled with sheet music or forgotten costume pieces from other performances in the auditorium. There were a few folding chairs unfolded, and a large stack of them in one corner. Nothing major about this room ever changed, and John had never realized before just how comforting that was.

"John?" Startled, John turned and saw one of Ms. Flinder's students looking at him in concern. The older boy was somewhat familiar, but John couldn't remember his name. "You okay there? You're looking a little tense."

"I'm fine," John tried to say, but his voice cracked unexpectedly. He took a deep shuddering breath and stretched his hands, trying to shake out the tension. He tried speaking again. "Just fine!" Awesome, barely any squeak that time!

The older boy looked unconvinced by John's obviously true statement. "Uh huh. You don't usually freak out before these things. What's up? Did the Pope swing by or something?"

John snorted as he thought about seeing a little Pope hat in the sea of audience members. "No, but that would be soooo cool if it did happen. Do you think they'd give him a front row seat automatically, or would he have to wait in line for his seat like everyone else?"

"He'd probably insist on sitting in the back row, since he's so humble." The other student pulled a couple of folding chairs up and gestured for John to take one of them. "So if the Pop's not here, I guess you've got something else on your mind, huh?"

John bit his lip, wondering if the older boy would make fun of him for freaking out about something so stupid. He didn't look like he was setting John up for something, though, and John remembered now he'd always been a pretty good guy when they talked before. It was probably safe to at least ask him something. "Do you ever think about what you're gonna do when you stop taking lessons?"

"Aaaaah." The boy sighed and leaned back a little. "Yeah, that's crossed my mind once or twice. People are really starting to lay into the whole college spiel right now." He shrugged. "It's hard not to freak out about the future, no matter what you're thinking about. All you can do is appreciate what you're doing right now and prepare yourself for what's next as best you can, I guess."

John frowned. He'd kinda been hoping for something more uplifting than that. People in movies gave much better pep talks when everything seemed lost. Of course, the stakes were also a lot higher in movies. I guess it makes sense for less dramatic stuff to get less dramatic speeches. He still felt a little cheated, though.

Some of his disappointment must have shown up on his face, because the older boy sighed again. "Sorry, I kinda suck at cheering people up. I'm still dealing with a lot of this myself. I'll tell you one thing, though." He leaned forward intently. "You've got some serious talent for music, John. You're probably one of the best students here. Even if you stop taking lessons, I don't think you'll ever lose that." He stopped, like he wasn't sure what else to say. After a few seconds, he shrugged again. "So, I guess, just - it's not the end of the world, right? Things might change, but you probably won't lose everything when that happens."

John leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands together as he thought. I guess it's a little like when Jade moved in. Right at the beginning, a lot of things had changed all at once, but slowly some things had gone back to normal, and some things had changed a little to include Jade and Bec. His piano lessons would probably change the same way.

He smiled at the older boy, who smiled back at him. "Thanks. I guess it just kinda hit me all at once."

"No problem," the other student said. "Change is a tough thing to think about at the best of times."

The green room door opened and someone wearing a headset poked their head in. "Five minute warning, everybody - Ashley and Tyler, you're the first two acts, everyone else is on standby." The person disappeared, probably off to make sure nothing catastrophic had happened onstage.

The older boy stood and stretched his arms over his head. "Guess I'll see you after the show, then. Break a leg."

Right, Tyler! That's his name! "Yeah, you too!" Tyler adjusted his clothes, making sure everything looked just right, before leaving the room.

John gave the clock another look. He was one of the last acts tonight, so he still had some time. All he could do was wait.

Paul stretched his legs out and checked his watch again. Nearly time for the show to start, he thought. The small auditorium was mostly full now. He and Jade had secured seats roughly in the middle of the side section, with Jade taking the aisle seat in case the crowd became too overwhelming for her. Thus far, though, she seemed reasonably calm - a far cry from their first outing months ago.

Nevertheless, it wouldn't hurt to check in with her. "Jade?" he said quietly. The girl turned to him attentively. "How are you feeling?"

She thought about the question for a few moments before saying, "Okay, I think. It's gonna start soon, right?"

"Yes, it should be starting any minute now." He glanced at his watch once more. Technically the show should have started a minute ago, but they usually started a little late to accommodate the audience members who were delayed coming in. "I'm glad you're feeling that way, but don't forget it's okay if you need to leave during the show. If you do, John and I will look for you by that large birch tree out front."

Jade smiled exuberantly. "Okay! I'm gonna do my best to stay through the whole thing, though."

Paul patted her on the shoulder proudly. "You're doing an excellent job so far, and that is a worthy goal to aim for. Just remember you've already accomplished something great by coming here."

She nodded just as the lights began to dim. She looked up in alarm, but then relaxed. "That's supposed to happen, right?" she whispered.

"Yes," Paul whispered back, "that means the recital is about to start." Jade breathed out in relief, and Paul turned his attention to the stage, ready for the performances to begin.

Jade gripped her seat tightly, down where John's dad couldn't see. If he saw how nervous she was, he'd tell her again that it was okay if she couldn't stay through the whole recital, which was a really nice thing to say! She was glad he wasn't forcing her to do anything she didn't want to do. Still, she was determined to last through the entire performance, no matter what. If other people could do it, there was no reason she couldn't!

The beginning hadn't bothered her too much - the lights going out was a surprise, but it only alarmed her slightly. It didn't really frighten her. The room quieted down as an adult came out and talked a little about the students and music and how good it was to see everyone being so supportive. People kept clapping at random points, which confused Jade a lot - wasn't it rude to interrupt someone when they were talking? - but John's dad was clapping, too, so she just filed it away as another question to figure out later.

After the adult was done talking, someone came and sat on the piano bench. She almost looks like an adult herself... is she a high schooler? Jade knew school was required up to a certain age, but the line between high school and other schooling wasn't something she'd figured out yet. It was hard to care about details like that when there were years of scientific breakthroughs to catch up on, after all.

The woman on the stage did play the piano beautifully. Jade tapped underneath her seat, trying to play along with what she was hearing, but the music moved too fast for her to keep up with. It helped her feel less like she was trapped, though, so she kept doing it. Anything that helped her get through the whole performance had to be worth doing.

The first performer played three different songs. After each one, the whole audience clapped loudly. Jade didn't like all the noise, but she clapped along since that seemed like the right thing to do. At least nobody's yelling, she thought. Yelling would probably be too much for her, as much as she hated to admit it. After the third song, the performer stood from the bench, bowed, and walked away. A boy passed her on her way out. He looked younger than the first performer, but still older than John or herself - as far as Jade could tell, at least.

This performer also played three songs, but he didn't sound quite as good. Because he's younger, I guess, Jade thought. It was a little easier to follow his movements with her fingers, but she still couldn't keep up. When he was done, another performer came out, and another one after that. Jade figured out the timing of the applause, which made it a bit easier to deal with. The noise was still annoying, but at least it didn't surprise her anymore.

Finally, John came out to sit at the piano. Jade leaned forward, excited to hear him play now. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw John's dad straighten in his seat a little, already smiling. He's gotta be excited, too. This is why we're here after all!

Up on the stage, John breathed in deeply before beginning to play. The songs he played were very familiar to Jade by now, considering how much he'd been practicing at home. They sounded different in this huge room, though - between the tall ceiling and the huge mass of bodies, the music sounded much richer than it ever did in the house. In the back of her mind, Jade started to think about the logistics of creating a room like this one. It helped ease a little more of the tension she was still feeling.

John finished his set faster than Jade expected. Probably because I'm a lot more used to his playing, she guessed. When he was done, he stood and bowed like all the rest. Jade and John's dad clapped hard for him. Jade wondered if he could hear their clapping over all the rest of the noise. Probably not, but she clapped extra hard just in case. Part of her also forgave the rest of the people in the audience for clapping so loud before - after all, they were all here for someone else, too, so it made sense they'd want to support them the best they could.

After he was done, Jade settled back to her old position. There were still a couple more performances to get through, after all, and her determination hadn't flagged just because she'd lasted until John was done performing.

After the show, John wriggled his way through the crowd towards the birch tree he and his dad always used as a meeting point. As usual, his dad had made it there first. John bounded up to him as the crowd moved away. "Hey Dad!" How'd I do? Did you like my concert?"

Dad smiled and patted John on the shoulder affectionately. "You did marvelously, John. Just like I knew you would."

John grinned, basking in his father's praise. Some things could never change, he thought. That made him realize something was missing, though. "Where's Jade? I thought she was coming, too."

"She's walking in the garden for now," Dad replied, gesturing to the little gates off to the side of the building that led to a public garden. When John was around the auditorium during the day he sometimes saw old people wandering slowly through the garden paths, but right now it was dark and quiet, vastly different from the frenzied courtyard. "She did enjoy your performance, though."

"Oh!" John hadn't thought about it much, but when he found out how late in the program he was scheduled to perform, he'd figured Jade wouldn't stay that long. There were so many more people here than at the library, after all. Even their church usually had fewer attendees than this concert. She stayed. That little thought drove a warm feeling from deep in his chest all the way through to the tips of his fingers and toes. Suddenly, he couldn't imagine this day happening without Jade, and his upcoming middle school graduation felt even more momentous when he imagined Jade there.

Dad sneezed, bringing John out of his thoughts. "God bless you."

"Thank you," Dad said as he wiped at his noise with a handkerchief. "Well, I believe we can collect Jade and be on our way home. How do you feel about that?"

"Sounds good to me!" John bounced towards the garden gate, eager to hear everything Jade could tell him about her experience this evening.

Chapter Text

"Bye Jessie!" John yelled to the bus driver as he leaped down the steps and flew towards home. The end of the school year was getting closer and closer, and just thinking about summer vacation made him leap for joy.

He checked the mailbox on his way up the driveway, but it was empty. No mail today, I guess. He burst through the front door, excited to have a whole afternoon of nothing he needed to do.

He stopped short at the sight of his dad and a black man he'd never met before sitting on the couch. He sheepishly shrugged off his backpack and closed the door a lot quieter than he'd opened it. "Oh, hi dad. Sorry about the uh, the door. Didn't think anyone would be home."

His dad chuckled and came over to give him a one-armed hug. "Welcome home, John. I'm glad to see you so excited." With his free arm, he gestured toward the stranger. "I'd like you to meet William Vileño. If the schedules work out, he'll be tutoring Jade this summer."

"Hello, John." Mr. Vileño stood and offered his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He had a very calm, tenor voice.

"Uh, hi! Hi." John reached out to take his hand, pulled back to wipe his hand on his pants, and reached out again. He tried to give a firm handshake like his dad taught him. Mr. Vileño smiled, and John smiled back, feeling like he'd passed. "So uh, what'll you be teaching Jade? She's already way far ahead on science stuff."

Mr. Vileño chuckled. "Yes, your father mentioned she's an avid scientist. I'm more versed in history and social studies, so I would be helping her catch up in those regards. High school is an important time for developing those skills, after all."

Dad nodded. "Yes, her teachers should be able to teach her well once she has a proper foundation. After all, she's very quick to learn when she has some guidance."

"I look forward to working with her, then." Mr. Vileño said with a hearty laugh. "It'll be much better than when I was trying to motivate my classmates in college. Willing minds are always more encouraging."

Dad chuckled and sat back on the couch again. "I know exactly what you mean. My coworkers are very capable, but whenever we try to change our system to better optimize our workday, I feel some of them refuse just out of sheer stubbornness, and no amount of discussion will change their minds."

The two men kept talking like that back and forth so long that John went up to his room without either of them really noticing. If they got along that well, though, he'd probably make a really great tutor for Jade. Anybody his dad liked had to be a good person, after all.

It was weird sitting at one of these tables, Jade decided. She'd seen plenty of people sitting at them on her previous trips to the library, but most of the time she was either wandering around the bookshelves or sitting in some corner, not out in the middle of everything like this. It was okay, but still weird. At least she had Bec at her side. That helped.

Sharing her table was Mr. Vileño, her tutor for the summer in the things she needed to learn before she went to school with John. "Mr. Vileño still sounds a little weird to me, but you should probably get in the habit of calling your teachers by their last names," he explained. "They're much more used to it, after all."

Jade tilted her head a little. "You're not used to it?"

"No," he chuckled, "I'm only a few years out of college myself, so while I've been tutoring for a while, it's still something I'm adjusting to. It takes time to get used to new circumstances, after all, whether that be as simple as a name change or as chaotic as a change in government. For example," here he sat up a little straighter, "the United States of America didn't start out so united. We were originally a set of colonies from another country, England..."

Jade listened to Mr. Vileño outline the early history of the country she now lived in. He wove things together like a story, with complex people making decisions for complicated reasons. It was much easier to follow than her haphazard attempts at studying history on the internet, as he focused less on dates and more on the motivations behind every decision he described. Jade found the corners of her mouth had drifted upwards without her even realizing it. She felt calm and happy, listening to him. She could almost imagine she was listening to Grandpa telling her a story before bedtime.

When she thought about her grandpa, Jade felt her chest squeeze in pain and the space behind her eyes started to tickle with a sudden promise of tears. She focused on breathing and holding the tears back. Bec sat up and placed his head in her lap, thankfully keeping quiet. If she could just pretend nothing was wrong, she could get herself under control.

"Jade?" Mr. Vileño had stopped talking. Jade focused on him, willing her eyes to stay dry. "Are you okay? If you need to stop, we can -"

"No," Jade choked out. Her throat felt like it was trying to close up. She took a deep breath and spoke again, with a steadier voice this time. "No, I want to keep learning."

He looked at her for a long moment, and Jade was afraid he was going to stop his lesson anyway because she was too weak to do this, too caught up in things that shouldn't matter anymore. At last, though, he nodded and picked up where he'd left off. Jade curled her hand in Bec's neck and focused on Mr. Vileño's words, determined not to lose control again.

After history they moved on to a little essay writing, where Mr. Vileño explained the basic outline of an essay, and a little basic grammar so she could understand what her teachers were talking about if they mentioned things like gerunds. Seemed like a kind of useless word to her, but it did help her to keep her mind off what she couldn't think about. At the end of their session, Mr. Vileño smiled at Jade and told her "I look forward to our next lesson" with the same kind of feeling she got from John's dad whenever he told her something important. She thanked him and said she was too, and then she walked home from the library with Bec at her side.

"He really is nice, huh Bec?" Jade said quietly. Bec snuffed and softly headbutted her hand in agreement. "Really smart, too! He knew so much about the Revolutionary War and I barely saw him look at his notes." He'd promised to go over note-taking with her at some point - she'd collected notes on various scientific techniques and theories, but his looked a lot more organized than hers.

She kept talking to Bec as they walked home, telling him what Mr. Vileño had talked about so she could remember it better herself. She ignored the tickle behind her eyes that stubbornly wouldn't go away. It was useless to cry, after all.

She entered the Egbert house and went straight to her room. Mr. Egbert was moving some pots and pans around in the kitchen, but she couldn't see John. Still at school, maybe? She hadn't checked the clock in the library when she left.

In her room, she sat on her bed and gestured for Bec to join her. He jumped up and lay half on top of her, leaning into her hand as she ran it through his fur again and again. She focus on that movement for a few minutes, trying not to think about dangerous things. It almost worked.

Someone knocked on her door. "Who is it?" she asked.

"It's me," Mr. Egbert said. "Is it okay if I come in?"

Jade bit her lip lightly and looked at Bec for his advice. He looked up and rolled backwards onto the bed, which wasn't very clear. She gave it another few seconds' thought before she said, "Okay."

Mr. Egbert opened the door and took a couple steps in. "How did you first lesson go? Did you learn a lot?"

"Yes!" Jade sat up a little straighter. "He started to teach me how essays work, and we went over the labels for different kinds of words, and he told me about - " Jade swallowed hard, the memory of Mr. Vileño's voice bringing back what she was determined to ignore. "- about, um, the Revolutionary War," she trailed off.

Mr. Egbert nodded a little, but he didn't move back to the kitchen. Instead he stepped forward once and said, "That sounds like an excellent first lesson indeed." He paused, then continued. "Is there something else you'd like to say, though?"

Jade held back, not wanting to acknowledge the pain still squeezing in her chest. Mr. Egbert just stood there, though, quiet and still, and she couldn't take it anymore. "I miss Grandpa," she whispered as quietly as she could.

Mr. Egbert's arms lifted towards her a little, and Jade pushed off her bed and rammed into him, holding him tight like the last time she'd hugged Grandpa years ago. "Oh Jade," she heard him say quietly, and his arms settled lightly onto her shoulders as she squeezed his back, those traitorous tears finally escaping down her cheeks. She thought back to the nights of dancing and stories, the days of hunting and learning, and with every memory she pulled herself closer to Mr. Egbert.

Eventually her memories started to repeat, and her tears stopped running, and she slowly loosened her grip. Mr. Egbert didn't move until she took a small step back. When she did, he pulled his arms away, leaving one hand on her shoulder. "Jade," he said quietly, "I am here for you always, whatever you need. All you have to do is ask, okay?" Jade nodded. "Do you want to talk about it now?" She shook her head. "Okay. I'm going to go work on dinner, then, but if you need anything I'll be right back." He left her room, closing the door behind him.

Jade fell back on the bed and curled up with Bec, who licked the tears off her face. It still hurt a little to think about Grandpa, but less like poking an open wound than it had. Lying there with Bec, Jade almost felt normal again.

Chapter Text

As Jade and Mr. Egbert shuffled in with the others attending the middle school's "graduation ceremony", she looked around at the "cafeteria", trying to drink in every detail. So this is what schools are like, huh... The room was lined with rows of folding chairs all facing a stage at one end of the room. The floor was marked with a bunch of lines - weird curves and straights that marked out different areas.

Mr. Egbert noticed what she was focused on and smiled. "Those are lines for a sport called basketball. Those hoops?" He pointed up at a couple of very bizarre, folded-up mechanisms near the ceiling. "They can be moved down, and players try to throw basketballs through the rings."

Jade tried to figure out what rings he was talking about, but it was hard to concentrate on looking up and not running into other people at the same time. The people in front of them were starting to turn off into the chairs on either side, though, so it seemed like they were almost done walking.

They approached someone who was gesturing from side to side. Those ahead of Jade and Mr. Egbert followed his gestures to sit on one side or the other. Mr. Egbert frowned as they got closer to the gesturing person. "Hm... I was hoping we could get seats near the aisle, but I'm not sure our luck is working out for us..."

"It's fine," Jade said quickly. They'd only need an aisle seat if she needed to escape, so she just had to stay put the entire time. Simple.

Mr. Egbert looked at her like he was considering something, but he didn't say anything to the gesturing person as they passed him to follow his instructions. Jade settled herself carefully on the chair - it wasn't particularly comfortable, but it wasn't as bad as some of the things she'd used as furniture on the island, and she wasn't too close to the stranger on her other side. She would be fine.

Now that they weren't walking, Jade looked back up at the "hoops" Mr. Egbert had described, trying to figure out where the rings were and how the mechanisms unfolded. The rings were pretty easy to spot, although they had some weird netting hanging off of them that didn't look super functional. Following all the joints and levers took a little longer, as she had to keep in mind how each part of the machine would move if one joint moved this way or that way. Finally though, she could see how the whole room would look if those hoops came down, and she could see how some of the lines on the floor marked boundaries. "How does basketball work?" Jade asked Mr. Egbert, because she'd learned a little about sports from Dave and John and little references she'd read on the internet, but nobody had ever really explained all the rules for any of them, and basketball seemed like as good a place to start as any.

Mr. Egbert smiled and explained how teams were set up, and how the ball had to be handled, and how scoring points worked. She did her best to see what he was talking about with the lines on the floor, where the "free-throw" line was and how the "courts" were set up. It all seemed unnecessarily complicated for something that was supposed to be fun, but Mr. Egbert sounded like he was excited by the complications, and that was how she felt about working through a particularly difficult physics problem wasn't it? So maybe the complications weren't really unnecessary after all.

The room quieted down around them, and Mr. Egbert paused his explanation of "traveling violations" to turn to the front. "The ceremony will be starting soon," he said quietly to Jade. She had no idea how he knew that, or for that matter why everyone in the room had gone all quiet at once. There was now an adult standing on the stage - did his appearance signal the beginning? It was a little similar to how the piano recital had started. She'd have to ask later to be certain.

"Welcome, family, friends, and loved ones, to this year's graduation ceremony!" Applause rang out through the room at this statement. "Now first, please stand and help me recognize our students with the respect and congratulations they fully deserve. May I present to you all the graduating class of 2009!"

Everyone in the audience clapped loudly, and Jade watched those in front of her turn in their seats. She shrunk a little from the unexpected gazes, but she realized quickly they were all looking somewhere behind her. She twisted all the way around, sitting up with her knees on her chair, and watched as a line of kids walked from the back of the room up to the stage. They all wore nice clothes, like how John and Mr. Egbert dressed for church. She saw John as soon as he stepped through the door, and tapped Mr. Egbert on the shoulder to point him out. Mr. Egbert beamed and held his camera up to take a few photos as John approached and passed them. When John locked eyes with Jade, he gave her a big grin and a quick wave, while his dad got a thumbs-up.

Once he'd passed them, Jade looked over the other students as they walked by and recognized a few of them from John's birthday party. She'd met most of them again once or twice as they visited after school or on the weekends (though she couldn't remember their names yet), but there was one face she hadn't seen in weeks. As Rob passed by, Jade considered him for a moment. He'd never been nice to her or John, but they would probably be at the same school next year. Leaving their situation as it was just meant he'd likely try to goad trouble out of her or John at the worst moment. It would be better to try and fix things now.

Jade contemplated her options as she turned to the front again, absentmindedly tracking the last of the students as they made their way up onto the stage and filled the seats there. The music faded away as the man stepped forward again. "Thank you all, once again, for joining us here today. I have had the privilege of seeing our students grow over their years of studying here, and I am honored to be here with you all to see them move on to the next stage of their education. In the words of the great Albert Einstein, 'Curiosity has its own reason for existing,' and I believe all our students here prove that curiosity is the driving force behind success."

The man continued on like that for a long time, with occasional breaks for applause from the audience. Jade couldn't tell how long exactly - there was a clock next to the stage, but it had to be broken, considering how slowly it moved. He said some things about what the school and the students had accomplished, which the audience all clapped for. None of it sounded that impressive to her, but maybe it was just polite to clap a lot at these things.

After an excruciatingly long time, the man said, "Now, I understand you're all proud and excited for our students - they are rather marvelous, after all." A few laughs rang through the audience. "I would ask, however, as we begin to read their names, that you refrain from any overzealous signs of appreciation. We have a lot of students to honor here today, and we appreciate any efforts towards running the ceremony smoothly. With that said, I turn this over to my esteemed colleague."

Another adult stepped into the view and stood behind some kind of tall desk. She nodded in appreciation and said a few more things before reading off names. For each name, one student stood up, walked across the stage, took something from one of several adults now standing in a line, shook all their hands, and walked back around to their seat, all while people in the audience clapped. As student after student walked by, one piece of music played repeatedly. It was one of the most boring things Jade had ever experienced in her life. Even fishing on a slow day had been more exciting - there had been books to read or machines to fix, and Bec was always up for some quiet roughhousing when it seemed like there was really no chance of a bite. She yawned big and wide when about a third of the students had walked by. Mr. Egbert gave her a smile that felt like he understood what she was feeling, though, so at least she wasn't supposed to find this entertaining.

Finally, with one last round of applause for all the students, the long, looooooong ceremony was over, and Jade was free to move around again. She and Mr. Egbert slowly made their way outside with the rest of the audience to the courtyard, where they found a place to wait away from most of the other celebrating families. John came bounding over soon enough, grinning exuberantly. "Congratulations, my son!" Mr. Egbert cheered as he bundled John into an enthusiastic hug. "You've done so well to make it this far!" He pulled back and offered John his hand, the same way John had offered his hand to her months ago. It was nice to know what that motion meant now - it had seemed so weird the first time she'd seen it.

John, with a sly look in his eyes, grasped his dad's hand tightly. There was a loud buzzing noise and Mr. Egbert pulled his hand back quickly, a confusing mix of emotions on his face. He looked.... surprised and proud? In response, John held up his hand, which had some kind of glove and device across the palm. "The joy buzzer is a superbly classic prank, Dad, and it was a good try, but Sassacre has an entire chapter devoted to subverting and redirecting such attempts, so you'll have to try harder than that to get me!"

Mr. Egbert laughed loudly at that and pulled John into another strong hug. "I couldn't possibly be prouder, my boy! I'll have to work especially hard on my next prank!"

John laughed, squirming out of the hug only to be met by Jade giving him one of her own. "Congratulations," she said into his ear, not sure what else she was supposed to say or do. She'd learned a little of what school was like, and she'd seen him working on his homework all the time, but she still didn't really know what he did every day when he left the house. She didn't feel like she could be proud of him when she didn't even know what he did.

Oblivious to her internal confusion, John just squeezed her back (apparently being careful to avoid touching her with whatever he had on his hand) and said brightly, "Thanks!" He pulled back and started to say something, but something barreled into his side just as he was opening his mouth. "Bah!"

One of his friends from his birthday party was now attached to his side. "We did it, John! In a few short months, we'll be high schoolers!" Her face shone brilliantly, stretched by her massive grin.

John laughed and patted her back a couple of times with his left hand. "Yeah, but only if you don't boa-constrictor me to death first, Maria."

She laughed back, letting go of him and excitedly talking about all sorts of things - Jade couldn't tell if she was sharing stories from their past or looking forward to the next year, or maybe it was a confused jumble of both. Regardless, John was keeping up with her, and Mr. Egbert was now animatedly talking with some other adults (Maria's family, probably), so Jade found herself at a bit of a loss. She looked around at the huge gathering, seeing how clumps of people surged together and then broke away. Easy patterns to follow, but not to understand.

Her gaze was caught by a small gathering off near the exit - three older boys pushing each other around and Rob, standing close by but turned away, hands stuffed deep into his pockets. After checking again that John and Mr. Egbert were fully occupied, Jade slipped away towards the group.

As she drew close, she could hear the older boys talking loudly to each other. "Seriously, why do they expect so much celebration for all this? Congrats on not being a truant so far, you've got four more years before you can do anything useful."

"Yeah, we could be earning money today, but nooooo, Mom said someone had to be here for this blown-up wankfest," another boy said. "What a load of shit."

"Hey, none of that," the last boy warned, "there's still little kids around, so watch your mouth."

The second boy rolled his eyes. "Just cuz Dad's letting you drive his car while he's on his business trip doesn't mean you need to act like him, too. What're you gonna do next, yell at Aiden for failing his classes?" The first boy shoved him with a quick added "Fuck off", which set off another shoving match like she'd seen earlier.

Through all of this, Rob just stood off to the side silently, staring at some wall until Jade's movement caught his eye. Before she could get close enough to say anything, he stomped off quickly away from his... family? They acted so different from John and Mr. Egbert (and her memories of Grandpa), but why would he have been standing near them if they weren't his family? Besides, she could see the similarities in their faces and the way they all moved.

Jade followed Rob as he stalked away. She fell into a simple pace, one that could keep moving quickly without sacrificing reaction speed. He tried to lose her by barreling through crowds of people, but she only saw them as particularly vocal trees or bushes now. The hunt was on.

They made their way in between two buildings, the space devoid of people, before Rob finally stopped and turned to face her. "What the fuck do you want, huh? Gonna set your devilbeast on me for real this time?"

Jade shook her head. "I wouldn't do that. Besides, Bec's not even here." It was getting easier to do new things without him, which was good because she was pretty sure the high school adults wouldn't like having him around. "I thought we should talk, seeing as we'll be classmates soon enough." He laughed sharply, once, and Jade kept a memory of that moment in the back of her mind to think over later because he didn't look like he was happy to be laughing at all. Right now she had to focus on keeping the conversation going. "We don't have to like each other or anything, but we could just not be mean to each other."

He shook his head and started walking away from her. "You really are fucked up, huh? Were you raised by singing cartoon birds or something?"

Jade frowned. "No, I was raised by my grandpa, and when he died Bec looked out for me until I could take care of myself. There wasn't anyone else on the island that could help."

Rob stopped suddenly. He didn't turn around or say anything, he just stood there for a long moment. Jade took a few steps toward him, but she stopped when he suddenly said, "You've gotta be fucking with me." Now he turned around, his eyes hard set and his fists clenched at his side. "That's the worst fucking bullshit anyone's ever tried to sell me. You think I'm stupid or something? Who would believe a pile of crap like that?!"

"There's no believing or not believing when it's the truth!" Jade yelled back. "If you'd take your head out of your ass for a second and just listen to me - "

"Fuck you! Who cares what you've got to say!"

"I care! And you should care, too! That's what people are supposed to do!"

"Shut up!" Rob threw a fist at her, but Jade dodged to the side easily. He came after her with his other hand, and she ducked under that one as well. His fists were a lot bigger than Bec's paws, but a lot slower, too. She kept moving around as he swung wildly a couple more times, until one of his punches went too wide and he tripped. She stood a few steps away and waited cautiously for him to get up and start swinging at her again, but he didn't move. Still ready to run if she needed to, Jade asked, "Are you hurt? Can you stand up?"

"Fuck you," Rob snarled in response as he lifted himself to a sitting position. "I can take care of myself."

Jade shrugged, not letting her guard down. "I can too, but it's nice when someone else can help. It's even better when you don't have to take care of anything because nothing's wrong - when there's no wound to wrap or machine to fix or garden to weed. Everything's nicer when you don't have to fight everything."

Jade watched something in Rob's body fall away at those words, his fists opening up and his head slumping over. He shook his head slowly and muttered, "There's always something wrong. There's always something to fight."

"Sure," Jade replied, "but we don't have to be that for each other. We can just be two people who've met once or twice that don't really like each other but don't hate each other either. Sound good to you?" She held out a hand to help him up.

He looked up into her eyes, then at her hand. Snorting, he stood up on his own. "Sure, why the hell not. It's not worth wasting my energy on you, anyway." He brushed some rocks off his arms and clothes before walking away, hands in his pockets and head held high.

Jade made her way back to Mr. Egbert and John, satisfied with how things with Rob turned out. High school will be that much easier now, she thought as she saw John gesturing wildly, his friends gathered around. Mr. Egbert, standing nearby, caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back. Yeah, this way's definitely better.

Chapter Text

" - so then Gina's brother comes in, and without pausing at all, he just says 'Don't break the couch,' gets a soda, and leaves again. Not even a minute later, he - he - " John could barely get the words out, he was already laughing too hard. "He screams so loud we can hear it from halfway across the house!"

Dad threw his head back and howled with laughter. "Incredible! And he didn't suspect a thing?"

John shook his head eagerly. "Nope! He just walked straight out and didn't even bother to come back! Gina was sure he'd notice the weight difference, but he didn't catch it at all."

"But how did you do it?" Jade asked between bites of casserole. "The can could've exploded at any moment, right? And how'd you get him to pick that can anyway?"

"Oh, Jade." John tutted and shook his head. "I could never reveal those kinds of specifics to just anyone. Of course, if you wanted to become my apprentice in the sacred, traditional art of magic and prankery, I would be willing to consider your application. It's a super rigorous process, though, I dunno if you'd be able to handle - " He was interrupted by a pea flying straight into his face, impressively close to his open mouth. Jade scowled at him from across the table, but the effect was marred by the smile she was obviously trying to fight. "Wow, that was a really good throw! Here, try again, see if you can land it in my mouth this time." He opened his mouth wide in preparation.

Jade picked another pea off her plate and tossed it his way, but this one bounced off his front teeth. Before she could get another, Dad said, "Alright, that's enough playing with your food. Any more of a mess and I'll make you two do all the cooking from now on, understand?"

John laughed and put his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay, anything but that!" He tried to catch Jade's eye, expecting her to be laughing as well, but she seemed suddenly subdued - not super depressed, but like she'd gotten lost in her thoughts somehow.

Dad turned to her with a smile and said, "So, Jade, how was your latest tutoring session?" He didn't look too concerned about how Jade looked. That probably meant it wasn't important, right?

His question was enough to grab her attention. "Oh, it was pretty cool! We've started talking about the expansion of United States territory, like the Louisiana purchase and the Mexican-American War and stuff."

"The Louisiana Purchase?" John absentmindedly tapped his fork against his plate. "That was bought off the Canadians, right?"

Jade shook her head. "No, the French sold it. I don't really get how the French owned it, but yeah."

John grinned. "They won it in a game, of course. All important transactions involve a game of chance at some point." Jade tilted her head down and looked at John through the top of her glasses, which always made him feel a little like a prey animal. "I'm serious! It was a dangerous game of wits, where rising leaders of a new world put their lives on the line to win it all!"

"Oh? What sort of games did they play, then?" Dad asked, giving his son a secret grin.

John answered very solemnly, "All sorts, really. I mean obviously there were duels in the crow's nest of giant ships, and bluffing games where you had to triple guess every move you made. The final match placed Napoleon against his most difficult opponent yet, the wily and suave - "

Jade laughed sharply, finally losing the battle against John's hilarity. "Gosh, John, even I know Napoleon comes later in history. You'll have to find some better bullshit next time."

Dad coughed pointedly. "No swearing please, Jade."

"Sorry, Mr. Egbert," Jade said, her eyes darting down to the table. "I forgot."

"Everyone forgets now and then," he replied. "I just want both of you to be aware of your language and how you use it."

John rolled his eyes as he shoveled another spoonful of beans and rice into his mouth. Every time Dad caught him swearing, it was the same lecture, with a bonus "I'm Disappointed" face if it was a really bad one. His friends never seemed to have the same issue with their parents, why'd his dad have to harp on it so much? It was really annoying.

Dad continued, "I am glad you're getting along so well with Mr. Vileño, and that your lessons are proceeding nicely. You should have a very good chance of starting high school in the fall." He smiled at that, but... it didn't look like his normal kind of proud grin. It was almost... sad? That didn't make any sense, though, he had nothing to be sad about, especially with Jade's lessons. Maybe he's just trying not to burp or something, or he's got a stubbed toe he's not telling us about, John decided. After all, his dad would tell him if there was something really bad going on.

John tuned back into the conversation as Jade was talking. " - and I've been using a little of my free time to learn a little more about what Mr. Vileño talks about, but I've also got a long list of TV shows and music and stuff that Dave tells me I absolutely have to know about as a 'modern teenager'." Jade used her whole hands to indicate the quotation marks, which John snickered at a little. He'd have to show her the normal gesture later.

Dad speared the last piece of carrot on his plate as he said, "What sort of shows has Dave been recommending to you? Are you enjoying them?"

Jade tilted her head to the side in thought. "A lot of them are cartoons, but he always insists on calling them animes, which I guess is the Japanese word for cartoon? I dunno why he has to use a Japanese word for it, but they are pretty cool. He uses a lot of Japanese words, actually, but he won't tell me what the others mean and he won't let me search for the meanings, either. Says it would ruin the fun."

"What sort of words does he use?" Dad asked.

"Well, earlier today he wrote something like... buhcake?"

John frowned. "Buhcake? What kind of a word is that?"

"I know, right?" Jade laughed. "It has way too many k's, like a seriously unnecessary amount."

Too many k's... John froze as a cold, dark realization broke over him. Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no. Please don't let this be the moment where I find out my dad knows what bukkake is. He glanced at his dad, fearing the worst. When their eyes met, he saw his worst nightmares realized - comprehension.

From that day forward, John knew he could never look his dad in the eyes again.

Dad cleared his throat awkwardly. "Jade, I don't think that's a word you should learn anything about at your age." John sank a little in his seat. Why wasn't death by mortification a real thing that could actually happen? "Do you know why Dave uses such words?"

Jade's smile dropped a little. "He says his brother uses words like that all the time."

"Hm.... that's his guardian, correct? Their parents are... well..." Dad trailed off.

"Y-yeah, it's just Dave and his big bro." Jade melted into her seat a little, making herself smaller. "Dave always talks like it's really cool, since they just eat a lot of junk food and play pranks on each other and stuff..."

"Hm..." Dad seemed lost in thought. John shared a worried glance with Jade - these weren't the sorts of questions his dad usually asked about people. After a few tense moments, Dad smiled suddenly and said, "Well, if Dave ever finds himself in our part of the US, let him know I'd be happy to take care of him."

"Okay..." Jade said cautiously. She seemed a little dazed at how the conversation had turned again.

John was still confused himself, but his dad's next words drove any other worries out of his mind. "Speaking of traveling, how do you two feel about taking a little trip to New York this summer?"

Jade froze, her expression somewhere between sighted-prey and rebooting-robot. John jumped with the thousands of questions that immediately sprang into his mind. "Are you serious? We never take any trips, especially that far! Did you win something at work? Did a distant relative leave you a spectacular yet spooky mansion? Are we going to fight ghosts? What kind of ghosts? Can i bring my Ghostbusters gear from Halloween? Are we - "

"Hold on, hold on." Dad laughed. "Let me answer at least one or two questions before you get too far ahead of yourself, John." John obediently shut his mouth, but he was practically vibrating in his seat waiting for answers. "I did not win a prize, or receive a mansion. I've actually been in contact with one of Uncle Harley's old colleagues, and there's some remaining business we have to take care of. It involves all of us, so I thought all of us should go."

John opened his mouth, questions already piling up inside him, but Jade spoke up first. "This colleague, they knew my grandpa?"

Dad nodded. "Yes, Doctor Lalonde worked with Uncle Harley on some truly magnificent computer projects back when the internet was just starting to emerge. She comes across as very fond of him."

Jade bobbed her head a few times. "And I could bring Bec?"

"Of course! This would affect him just as much, I couldn't possibly conceive of leaving him behind," Dad declared.

"Then... when do we leave?"