Disclaimer: I do not own Homestuck, any of the characters featured in the webcomic, or any part of any associated media. I am making no money from this fic and its sole purpose is for the entertainment of myself and other fans. No copyright infringement is intended.


It starts in spring, after the honeysuckle dies and the sun still feels like a friend. The world is green and yellow, and it smells like still water and dandelions as the Texas morning slides like cooling wax over the treetops.

He hides in the shadow of a towering pine tree with his back pressed to the dirty bark. Gnats swarm thickly around the cool patch of clover he stands in, and he peeks around the edge of the trunk at the squirrel who's chittering away at another hidden high up in the branches above him. His fingers are sweaty around the triggers of his water pistols, and he pretends like they're real ones because he's five years old, a world-renowned hunter and celebrated explorer, and to him they are. Pine needles crunch drily when the squirrel starts to scamper away, and he jumps out from behind the tree with a shout, firing wildly at it until his guns are empty. Only, it isn't a squirrel running across the dead leaves, and by the time he realizes it, it's too late to do anything about it. There's a soaking wet boy with blonde hair and a plastic sword in his hand looking down at himself.

Little beads of water are running down his arms, held out to his sides and dripping onto the grass beneath him, and he seems tough. He's bigger than Jake, and when he looks up from his soaked blue Power Rangers shirt to glare with these mad, eagle eyes, Jake thinks he should start running before he gets a wallop. But the boy just pulls the shirt away from his chest so that it isn't sticking to him anymore and asks, "What kind of bullets are these?"

Jake relaxes, no longer thinking he's in for a fight, and smiles, bringing out his pistols from where he'd hidden them behind his back. "Magic ones. They kill everything. Even pirates," he says, eying the boy's sword.

"Oh...Well, I'm bullet proof. And I'm not a pirate. I'm a samurai."

"What's a samurai?" he asks.

"It's like a ninja but with a really cool sword and honor and stuff. They can cut bullets in half."

Jake doesn't know what a ninja is either, but he thinks that's the best thing he's ever heard of, even better than the secret agents in the spy movies he watches. He can see why his bullets didn't work. "Do you want to play with me?" he asks, stepping forward. The boy has purple juice stains at the corners of his mouth, and he hesitates before he answers, turning his head so that he's looking behind him at the car lot of the park they're playing in. There's another tall blonde man who's leaning against the trunk of a car and talking on his cellphone. His back is to them, and he's gesturing with his hands like he's angry, but Jake can't hear what he's saying to be sure, and the boy is turning to face him again.

"What game do you want to play?" he asks.

"Jungle Adventure!" Jake says it like he expects the boy to know what he's talking about, and he's a little disappointed when it's obvious that he doesn't. "You've never played it?" The boy shakes his head. "Okay, well, I'm the brave explorer, and since you have a sword you can help me cut through the poison vines and kill monsters that want to eat us and keep us from finding the temple where the treasure is." As he's talking, the boy's face goes sour, and Jake wonders what he's said.

"No way, samurais are warriors. My sword is for protecting princesses. I don't want to cut trees," he says. He puts his hands on his hips and looks like he won't agree to play, so Jake thinks fast because now he wants to have a jungle adventure with a samurai.

"Then...I can be a brave explorer princess, and you can protect me with your sword and cut trees and kill monsters, too. That way we can still find the treasure." The boy relaxes and nods, and Jake is happy because it's a good plan. They can both be happy with it.

"My name's Dirk," the boy says with a smile, and Jake can see that one of his teeth is missing, which makes him little jealous because he still has all of his.

But Jake beams at him anyway and slips a pistol between his side and his arm so that he can offer his hand because that's what his grandma says all explorers do when they introduce themselves. "I'm Jake." Dirk doesn't seem to know what he means by it and slaps the palms of their hands together instead. It stings, but it's good enough, and Jake assumes that must be how samurais introduce themselves.

A lady with her hair in a pony tail comes jogging through the path where the bike trails that wind off through the trees meet in the middle of the clearing. With her headphone wire bouncing against her chest, she smiles at them and says 'good morning.' Jake waves back and says hello, but Dirk stays quiet and watches her bound off instead. "I like the way you talk," he says finally after she's disappeared into the trees, and Jake turns to look at him, slipping his water pistols between his belt and his shorts because he doesn't have a gun holster, and it makes him feel more like a real explorer than when he puts them in his pockets.

"I like the way you talk, too. Let's be friends from now on," he asserts. Dirk agrees, and before he says anything else takes another look back at the blonde man on the phone, who's still not looking at them. All of his attention is focused on whoever he's yelling at, so Dirk grabs Jake's hand and pulls him away down another of the trails almost too fast for Jake to keep up, but he's all too happy to try because someone else is going on an adventure with him for the first time, and he knows it's going to be a good one.

And it is a good one. It's the best one he's ever had, and it goes on and on. The whole day is spent ducking under bushes and climbing trees because the view up top is better for finding the location of the temple and spotting enemy hideouts, and although Dirk is slow on the uptake, he gets it eventually, and then he excels. Jake is convinced Dirk is the best samurai in the world, and even the ancient booby traps hidden in the scraggly weeds don't trip him up because, as it happens, he can cut unexpected flying arrows in half, too. Sometimes he saves Jake from monsters, and sometimes Jake saves him from giant boulders, and because they've wandered so far away from the path, no one clumsily stumbles through and ruins their dream.

It's perfect, and he wants every day for the rest of his life to be just like this one.

When his stomach starts grumbling and the sky is turning purple through the thick dark canopy overhead, he's genuinely upset. He's never had so much fun, and it's unfair in a way that seems criminal that it has to end just because the sun won't stay awake for them. Bugs have started to come out, though, and Dirk is scratching at his mosquito bites so hard that ugly red lines from his fingernails have risen all over him, so Jake grabs for his hand again, and they start making their way back to where they think they left the trail. Slowly, though, because even bugs can't rush an adventure this good.

Jake makes Dirk promise to come back so that they can do it again next week because he has to start kindergarten when the weekend is over. "New town, new school, new rules," he recites to Dirk. Words from his grandma. He can't stay out playing all the time, she says. So he won't, but he'll save a day for it. He'll save this day for it, he thinks, and when they emerge from the trees into the clearing there's no one on the small plastic playground with the two bright red slides and the yellow monkey rails because it's after dusk, and the park closes after dusk. The entire place is empty, including the car lot, and he remembers that he was supposed to be home before now, and isn't allowed to go anywhere else, but then Dirk asks if Jake wants to walk home with him, and Jake forgets about all of that because he doesn't want to leave his new friend just yet. So he follows behind swinging their clasped hands around in a wide arc between them. Dirk says he remembers which way his brother drove them to get there, so Jake lets himself be guided along while they talk about his grandma and Dirk's brother. His brother was the one with the cellphone who hadn't been looking at him before they ran away, he explains.

"He's really cool." It makes him sound sad to say, and he looks down at his feet, kicking a pebble up the road. Jake tells him that he thinks Dirk is cooler, but Dirk shakes his head. "No, he's really cool," he mumbles, and Jake can't convince him that he is too, so he stops trying, and they wander down the muted gray streets holding hands. The houses are all quiet and comfortable with yellow lights in the windows and the downy pink and purple twilight threatening night above their heads, and Jake's never seen this part of the neighborhood before because his new house is on the other side of the park. It's nicer here, though. Everything is made with big red bricks, and he can't hear anyone yelling bad things at each other from inside their homes.

Dirk lives in a two-story house made of the same red brick as all the others, and it takes them a while to get there, but Dirk isn't sad anymore when they do. He'd asked Jake about where he had moved from, and Jake is busy talking about how different 'Tessas' is from 'Brissol' when they emerge from the side of a tall wooden fence overrun with leafy flowering vines and come out on the sidewalk in front of it. Dirk's brother is standing in his doorway red faced and shouting again, but the shouting is different now from how it had been earlier. This time, he doesn't look angry; he looks scared and sad, and his face is wet because he's crying. There's a policeman who's trying to calm him taking down notes on a little paper pad, but it's not working, and Dave just shouts more when he tries to tell him it'll be okay. Dirk stops swinging their hands together and stares.

"Dave?" he calls. His voice is tentative, and his eyes are wide and afraid, and Jake is looking between them all, unsure of what's happening.

Dave's eyes snap to them like someone has punched him in the gut, and then he's stepping around the policeman. In a flash, he's kneeling on the ground with his arms around Dirk, and he's squeezing him so hard that Dirk wheezes. It scares Jake into taking a step back, but it only takes a second for Dirk to put his arms around his brother and squeeze just as hard. The red and blue lights on top of the cop car in the driveway are spinning around slowly, and the people in the house across the street are watching them from a window where he can see images on a TV screen playing in the background. Dave is mumbling into Dirk's hair about how worried sick he's been, wanting to know where Dirk was, if he's safe, if he's okay, why he would scare him like that, and it's a million and one questions that Dirk doesn't have a chance to answer because suddenly Dave's eyes are on Jake. They're hard and red, and he's afraid that he's done something wrong.

"Kid, who are you?" he asks.

"I'm -" he stops because the policeman is staring at him, too, but he doesn't remember doing anything that he would be in trouble for except leaving the park, so he steps toward Dave and pushes his hand out. "I'm Jake English," he says quietly. Dave peels an arm from around Dirk and takes his hand but doesn't shake it. Dirk pipes up then, explaining that they had been playing, that Jake is an explorer, and that they were looking for treasure. They didn't find any yet, but Dave can have some when they do because they're going back to look for it again soon. Dave lets go of Jake's hand and slumps like all the energy has been taken out of him, exhaling slowly before he stands. His hands find themselves under Dirk's arms, and he's picked up and seated around his shoulders before Dave says anything else, and then Dave is offering his hand to Jake again.

"Come on. Your parents know you're out?" he asks.

Jake wraps his fingers around Dave's and says, "I don't have parents," and Dave gives his hand a squeeze so light, so quick, he's not sure it happened, but Jake's not really focused on it to be sure because Dirk's looking down, and he's looking up, and their eyes meet. He looks content. Resting his chin in Dave's blonde hair, Dirk fumbles for the sunglasses that are hanging on his shirt collar, pulling them away so he can put them on his own face. They're too big and cover everything from his forehead to his cheeks before they slide off his nose completely, and Jake wants to laugh, but he's still too unsure of what's happening.

The policeman meets Dave halfway in the middle of the yard, and they have another long talk that concludes with the sense that everything's fine now because Dirk's home. When they finish, he offers to drive Jake home, and Jake thinks it'd be fun to ride in the back of a police car, but he honestly doesn't know how to get back to his house by driving, and he doesn't know what their new phone number is to call his grandma and ask for directions. With a wave of his hand, Dave says it's fine, that he'll walk Jake home, and after some more chitchat the policeman takes off in his car, radio fizzing with a dispatcher's garbled voice, and it's just the three of them left standing on the dark lawn.

The sky is navy and white-speckled now, and the reflection of the porch light is glinting on the dark glass edge of Dave's shades, still snugly around Dirk's chin. Dave turns his head up and puts a hand on Dirk's back to keep him steady on his shoulders, taking his shades away and putting them back on his face before he's pulling Dirk down and setting his feet softly in the grass. There's a slim hand weaving through Dirk's fluffy yellow hair when he speaks again. "Why would you scare me like that? You know I have a flight to catch in the morning." The smile disappears from Dirk's face, and he looks confused.

"But you said we would play before you left." Dave is shaking his head before Dirk's even through speaking, and then he's quiet, looking at his feet again the way he had when they were walking home. Jake is a stranger here, but he wants to ask Dave to stay so he'll look happy again.

"That's why we went to the park today, little man. I can't stay longer just because you ran off." The cellphone he had been talking on is clipped to his belt now, and Dirk is pouting, pushing Dave's hand away from his head with both arms. Dave sighs, turning to look at Jake. "You ready to go home?"

He nods, and then Dave is going back to the house to lock the door, and Jake turns to ask if Dirk is okay, but he isn't talking anymore, so Jake settles for grabbing his hand. When Dave comes back, Dirk reluctantly gives him the other, and they start making their way back. Jake's the only one who's talking, and when they get to his house, just around the corner from the park and not as cool as Dirk's because it's only one story and faced with faded wood paneling - but nice because it smells like his grandma's been baking again - she's mad at him for being late. But she's too happy to see that he's made a friend to stay that way for very long.

"I would have taken him myself, but I've got a bad hip, you see," she says, offering Dave a piece of pound cake which he politely refuses. They're all standing in the entrance to the dining room, and Jake wants to show Dirk his room and his favorite toys, especially the Indiana Jones poster he got for his last birthday, but the adults are talking, so he's polite like his grandma asks and keeps from interrupting them. "And it's hard for me to get around. But what kind of grandmother would I be if I didn't let him have his adventures just because I can't share them?" Dave is nodding, saying that he understands because he wishes he could be around more often to share in Dirk's adventures, and then his grandmother is talking about his parents and the accident and the move and other things he's tired of hearing about, so he tunes it out.

His legs hurt, and he wants to go do something else before he has to get ready for bed, but he slides down to sit on the floor instead while the adults drone on. They talk about Dave's job, how he's only in town until tomorrow. He's working on 'deals' in California, so Dirk is home with a babysitter a lot because he's in kindergarten now - "Oh, yes, Jake has been registered there too! You'll be classmates, isn't that nice?" - and California's not a great place to raise kids. His grandma thinks it's too bad for a little boy to be alone so often like that, so Dirk's welcome to come over whenever he likes, and this is the last part of the conversation that Jake cares about before his head is nodding. The feeling of Dirk's fingers being pulled from his own rouses him, and he looks up with bleary green eyes to see him fast asleep in Dave's arms, head cradled against Dave's neck as he exchanges goodbyes with his grandmother and leaves. She leans down to pick him up, too, groaning at the effort. "You're getting too big for this what with my hip being like it is," she says, but he clings to her anyway. Already being lulled back to sleep by her rocking arms and the sweet smell in her dark hair, starting to turn white at the temples, he doesn't care about how big he is.

"Can Dirk come back soon?"

"He'll be here Monday after school, honey," she says, and he doesn't know what he says after that, but it's something along the lines that he likes the idea. She's laying him down in his bed, carefully removing his shoes and his belt but letting him keep his water pistols resting beside him on the pillow because he likes to sleep with them in case he has to wake up in the middle of the night to fight villains. The blankets with the monster pattern are being pulled up to his neck, and her warm wrinkled hands brush his hair from his face in the way that makes him think that this is his favorite part of the adventure, being tucked in safe and sound by Grandma.

"..'love you, Gramma," he mumbles into the pillow, and she kisses his forehead before she leaves, keeping the door open a crack so the light from the hallway can find its way in.

Kindergarten is better than anything he's ever dreamed of. There are lots of other kids to play with, and they're all nice to him and ask him to say stuff because they've never heard anyone talk like him. He gets to sit between a girl named Jane and a girl named Roxy on a big carpet that looks like a puzzle in the middle of the classroom, and the whole room is covered in finger paintings and lined with shelves that are red and blue and yellow, filled with crayons and supply containers, and there are big wooden cubbies for their backpacks and lunchboxes. Dirk sits in front of him on the carpet, and he pokes him in the back all day to talk. When they have to take nap time, they lay their sleeping mats next to each other and try to whisper so that the teacher won't overhear them, but it doesn't work well. By the time the day is over, their names have been written in red marker on the whiteboard which means they're in trouble for talking too much. They have to take notes home to be signed by their parents which worries Dirk because Dave is gone and Jake because he's never officially been in trouble before. After school, when his grandma picks them up in the car she's still not very comfortable driving, they show her the notes. She laughs, signing them both on her knee before she pulls out. It makes Dirk smile, and he says he likes Jake's grandmother, so she tells him that he can call her Grandma if he wants. When he does, Jake pretends like they're brothers.

Before they're even parked in the driveway, they're rushing from the car and running as fast as they can toward the park for another adventure.

And that's how it goes. For three perfect years, they're inseparable. When Dave is out of town, which is most of the time, Dirk is at Jake's house. Sometimes when he stays the night, they pitch a tent made of blankets in the backyard, and Grandma brings them snacks and flashlights and enough comforters to drown in before settling in beside them and telling incredible stories that she swears are true. He always nods off before Dirk, even though he tries to stay up with him.

In the morning, they wake up and run inside to watch cartoons, eating breakfast as fast as they can, and then it's a mad sprint to the park because it's Saturday, and Saturday is Adventure Day, and neither of them can wait to find out if the rickety old picnic tables in the clearing where the bike trails begin will be impenetrable castle battlements or magnificent pirate ships, or if the trails will lead them to an ancient temple full of treasures like they did that first day. The adventures are never the same and always incredible, and they tell Grandma everything about them that they can remember when they get back to his house for dinner. Dirk says her pumpkin pie is his favorite, and Jake agrees, so she starts putting two pieces in Jake's lunchbox whenever she makes some so that he can share with Dirk.

Too quick to be fair, it's summer. Kindergarten is over, and there's no more having to practice his letters even though he already knows them or laying down for nap time when he isn't tired, just the hot sun and plenty of time to play. Everyone has gone on to summer camp or vacation except for him, and though Jake started too late in the year for it to count toward his education, his grandmother says he'll test out of it so that he can be in the first grade with Dirk next year. School doesn't matter, but he wants to be with Dirk, so he tells her that's a very good idea and appoints her as 'Chief Idea Haver.'

Dave comes home from California the first week of vacation, and Jake is invited to spend the night at Dirk's house for the first time. His grandmother takes special care to pack his toothbrush and his coolest pajamas because Dave is "really cool." The house is not as big as he thought it was from the outside, but it's full of all kinds of electronic things and props and papers that neither of them are supposed to touch, and there's a pool in the backyard with a diving board and a slide that they're not supposed to use because the water's deep there. Most of their time is spent swimming and splashing each other, and Dave rubs them down with sun lotion and lets them eat junk food for dinner, which Jake agrees is really cool. Dirk's room is on the top floor, and he has what Jake thinks are probably a million puppets and horse dolls. They've all got names, and he takes his time introducing them all before showing Jake the samurai swords resting on nails in his wall. These are real, and Dave insists they're not for playing, but Dirk says he plays with them anyway when he's alone. His bed is really big, and unlike all the times they've shared Jake's, they won't have to sleep shoulder to shoulder because there's enough room to roll around. And jump. They jump on Dirk's bed a lot.

There's no official bed time, but they fall asleep early while they're watching a movie about ninjas - which are even cooler than Dirk said they were - and wake up to scrambled eggs and orange juice that Dave makes while he's just wearing his underwear, and Jake can't stop snickering at him for it. There's a clunky stereo speaker in the middle of the table that they grin at each other over from either side, and Jake's never seen Dirk look so happy as when his brother's home. Dave even drives them to the park that day for adventures. He doesn't play, but he brings some paperwork and sits down at one of the tables to work on it while they chase each other through the slides and the monkey bars, but promise that they won't get lost on the bike trails and scare Dave like they did last time. Lunch is delivered to them while they're sweaty and red faced and resting on the long platform that runs between the two slides. Dave has to climb up the rope ladder to sit down and eat with them, and they laugh at his surprised curse when it threatens to flip him over. Later that night, when they're playing with Dirk's puppets, they whisper the word to each other and laugh.

The week ends, and Dave is headed back to California, leaving Dirk unhappy again.

"I miss him a lot," he answers when Jake asks him what's wrong, and they don't play that day, but they have the whole summer ahead of them, and it's just one day. Jake doesn't mind letting him be sad for a little while because that first summer is unforgettable regardless, and they decide to officially be best friends. When first grade starts, this is what they tell people proudly, but this year is different from the last, and it's not as impressive as Jake thinks it should be. The kids are starting to be more aggressive toward him, and instead of compliments he's starting to get picked on for the way he speaks. Answering the teacher means having his voice parroted back to him by another classmate to a chorus of laughter.

Dirk doesn't get treated the same way he does, and when Jake asks him if he's noticed, he says he doesn't think it's true that they're picking on him. Standing behind Jane in the line to the cafeteria, he asks if she thinks it's true, and she does. "One time," she says, "someone took all the food out of my lunchbox and put worms in it instead." Jake tells her that's the meanest thing he's ever heard and invites her to sit with them for lunch, so she smiles and hugs him, taking him off guard before she disappears. Roxy's in tow when she comes back, and when the two of them start asking what Jake and Dirk do all the time, because they're together so much, it's an unspoken promise that neither of them talks about their adventures.

As the year passes, Jake discovers that Dave doesn't come home very often at all, and even if Dirk doesn't talk about it unless he's asked, he wants him to. Autumn comes up on them slowly, and before they've had time to get used to it, it's already winter, and everyone is buzzing about the holidays. Christmas lists are being taped up in the halls at school, and they're all filled with something different, so Jake asks Dirk what he wants because he thinks he might be able to do it for him and make him happy, but when all he says is, "I want Dave to come home," Jake knows he can't do that.

Dave has to stay in California to work, and Jake knows by now how much his absence hurts Dirk, so he insists that they spend Christmas at his house. His grandmother calls Dave to make sure he's okay with it, and when his grandma shows up to take him home with them, the babysitter is just as happy because it means she can spend time with her family, too. Dirk is told to thank Mrs. Harley and mind his manners, and he asks Dave if he thinks Santa will find him at Jake's house, so Dave assures him that he will and asks to speak to Grandma again before he hangs up. They don't get snow during the break, but it gets cold enough for sweaters, and there are pretty lights to look at on all the houses, so it evens out.

On Christmas Eve, excitement wakes Jake in the middle of the night, and he turns over in his bed to wake Dirk so they can creep into the living room together to see what Santa brought before the morning comes. He stops as he's reaching out because Dirk's shoulders are shaking, and he's sniffling, and Jake doesn't have to see his face to know that he's crying. Even if he's never seen Dirk cry before, he knows what's wrong. Instead of speaking, he puts his arms around him and stays quiet. Because of Dirk, he knows now what having a brother is like, and if he were to leave Jake there alone on Christmas, he'd cry, too. After a while, it stops, and Dirk says that he loves Jake as much as he loves Dave, which is silly because of course he does. They're brothers too, after all.

In the morning, it's obvious that Santa knew where Dirk was, and they unwrap a mountain of presents to Christmas carols on the radio, and Grandma takes enough pictures to fill an entire photo album. Dirk calls Dave on the phone after they've had breakfast to wish him a Merry Christmas, but all he gets is voicemail, so he hangs up without saying anything, and they go to the park all bundled up to test out Jake's new nerf guns and Dirk's new sword because going on an adventure always makes things better, even when it's forty degrees outside. Jake can tell after a few minutes that, when the weather's warm enough for real exploring, their new weapons will serve them well.

When Dave comes back to visit that summer, Dirk doesn't seem as excited to see him.

By the second grade, the teachers start referring to them solely as a pair. Jake's eyes have gotten bad from sitting too close to the television when he watches movies, and now he has to wear glasses, which makes the teasing much worse than it had been, and when team captains pick Dirk for games - because he's really good at them all - they know they have to pick Jake even though he's not. He has a habit of zoning out in the middle of things, imagining himself lost on some daring journey to recover a stolen artifact from an evil villain or something similar. A lot of times, it's nothing that grand. Often, he'll forget that he's supposed to be waiting to catch a ball, and he'll think of times when he's running around in the woods with Dirk. His classmates get mad at him for missing balls that fly right by him or for being too slow and losing them points. It's not like he means to, but he can't help it. The work isn't much different, but second grade is harder than first because no one makes excuses when they bully him now, and he doesn't know why. Dirk still thinks he's making it up in his head until they're on the playground one day after they've come back from Winter break. Dave hadn't come home from California again, but this time is different because this time he'd promised that he would, so Dirk is not just sad.

Now, he's angry and heartbroken at his brother for getting his hopes up and then breaking his promise, and he's taking his anger out on an intense game of dodgeball. Jake and a group of other boys from their class are all spread out on the muddy field, and Jake is distracted, wishing there were some way he could make it better as he watches Dirk dart around viciously flinging balls at kids. He had tried to console Dirk when December 25th rolled around without a word from Dave, but all he could do was stand there and hug him.

It's rained recently, and there are puddles all over the playground, all half frozen and full of muddy slush, and Jake is zoned out again. He's thinking about how hard it's been to play with Dirk like usual and about the way he'd heard Dirk swear for the first time and mean it the morning after Christmas. It was early, and he'd woken up alone in his bed even though Dirk was staying with him and they'd gone to sleep together, so he'd lifted himself from the covers to find him. His search ended when he walked in on the last fifteen seconds of a phone call with Dave. "Asshole," he'd whispered, and then he'd loudly slammed the phone back down on the receiver, making Jake jump. Dirk turned to see him standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching it all transpire in the early morning light, and he stayed with his fingers wrapped around the phone body until Jake's arms were around his back, and then he was hugging him too. Dirk didn't cry like he had the last year, but he let himself be held until the sky was light outside and the sounds of Jake's grandmother waking up reached them from down the hall.

The game is being played with heavy weight balls because their school doesn't have enough actual dodgeballs to match the number of kids, but it's mostly okay, mostly safe, because everyone knows that hits don't count unless they're below the belt. It's an incredibly tense game that Dirk is dominating because he's thinking about the same thing Jake is, and while Jake is lost hopelessly wishing Dave would come around more, he doesn't hear the shouts to 'look out!' until he's hit. Blue-black lightning explodes in his eyes.

He's knocked face down into a freezing mud puddle, nose oozing blood, ears ringing, and the smashed pieces of his glasses skittering away across the ground. For a moment, he's just stunned, and except for the ringing there's silence because it happens so suddenly that he can't process it. Then he tries to inhale, chokes on a mouth full of cold slop, and the pain hits him. He's screaming, crying, peeling his filthy face from the ground because he doesn't know what happened, but he can't breathe. All he knows is that there's too much pain, and he's not sure if he's falling or rising.

His eyes roll around trying to make sense of things, but everything, even and especially the bleak January sky, is suddenly too bright and abrasive and looking like it shouldn't. He doesn't know why it shouldn't, but it's not good. He's trying to warn people that the sky is wrong, but he can't hear his voice for a second, and when he can he doesn't want to talk about the sky. Roxy and Jane have been watching from not too far away, and now they're at his side yelling at him, asking if he's okay, but he doesn't know because his legs aren't working, and he can't remember how to sit up, and then Dirk is there, too. Jake is trying to answer their questions, but he's so disoriented that he doesn't even realize he's crying. There's as much noise and light as there is pain - way too much - and his body's not working right as he tilts dangerously from one side to the other. His back is to the rest of the boys, but he can still hear them laughing when he uses his jacket sleeve to shakily wipe some of the wet mess from his face. All it does is smear it around, though, and he's crying again because he's so afraid, and he doesn't understand what's happening.

To his side, Dirk's eyes are enormous and terrified, and he leans toward him, his head and his face throbbing so terribly when he can feel them that he's scared he's dying. "Dirk..," he warbles, gasping to catch his breath before he can continue because there are still strange things in his mouth, and he thinks they'll choke him if he doesn't breathe around them, "this really hurts." Dirk's shaking, and he's standing up and sitting down in quick succession, yelling for help. Jake's face has leaked blood down the front of his white uniform jacket, and the teachers seem to realize something is wrong now. They're coming toward the group from where they've been watching leaned against the long brick wall of the school.

"Hey, Engrish, do you still talk like a retard with a mouth full of dirt?" one of the boys yells, and then Dirk's eyes aren't terrified; they're savage, and he's darting away from Jake's side, which leaves his head bobbing painfully against open air. The sounds of sobbing come to him through the confused haze. He thinks he's looking up at Jane, who's crying more than he is, and trying to comfort her because a gentleman never stands by while a lady is crying. Whatever he says doesn't make sense to him, but he feels like he's going to puke. There are two teeth loose in his mouth, making it hard to speak. He uses his tongue to pry them up from his gums, spitting them out into his limp hand and trying to figure out what they are because he doesn't remember what teeth look like, and the world is spinning too fast. His hand is twisting in Jane's shirt because he feels like he's on a tilt-a-whirl, and he doesn't hear the scuffle behind him, but the teachers are breaking up into two groups. One is coming toward him, and the other is making their way off behind him until the P.E. coach, a wide-set man made of one-hundred percent muscle and two-hundred percent seriousness, is on his knees in front of him.

He's using his thumbs to pull up Jake's eyelids, and Jake thinks there's a light being shone in them, but it's a different light from the way sky is, so he's not sure, but he doesn't want that hand on his face. "Jake? Jake, can you hear me?"

"I'm a -" he doesn't know what he is except cold and crying again. There's blood in his mouth, and then the coach is lifting him up and jogging with him into the building as fast as he can go. It's not as fast as it would have been if it were his grandmother, and he's thinking of her carrying him to bed and tucking him in and wishing that it were. His entire face hurts like he's never felt real pain before, and he wants her to be there to hold his hand and tell him that he's not dying, that it'll be okay. Sometimes he's aware that it's not okay, and sometimes he can't remember what's going on, but the times when he's aware are the scariest. Over the coach's shoulder, he can see Dirk tussling around on the ground with another boy. He's straddled on top of him throwing punches in a flurry of white and yellow, still flailing his arms and legs even when the teachers pry him away from the boy. Maybe that boy is Dave. He hopes it's Dave because he was supposed to come down to see Dirk, and now Dirk's sad.

"It's okay, Jake. It's okay, we're going to get you some help, buddy. Alright? Stay awake," he's saying, and even though his voice is gentler now than he's ever heard it, Jake just wants him to be quiet. The noise is overwhelming and he doesn't want it.

"Where'sm..." He swallows, and the pain is keeping him from breathing again. It's rolling back over him when the coach is pushing his way into the school, and the blinding florescent lights passing over him in long, painfully sharp streaks leave him nauseated. His voice is barely a breath when he asks, "Where'smygrandma?" and he doesn't get an answer because it's too much when they pass a teacher's aid who screams at the sight of him. He can't be awake anymore.

The first time he wakes up and remembers it, he's in a hospital bed, and his grandmother is beside him. Instantly, he's aware that his face hurts, and the first thing he does is cringe, whimper, and try to sit up. Dirk is to his grandmother's left, leaning over him and clutching his leg, and she's cooing softly with her warm hands on his face. He feels relief at the sight of them both.

"What happened?" he asks. Dirk has a black eye and a two long scratches on his neck, and he wants to rise, but his grandma is pushing him back down to the bed, so he lowers himself again. The sheets are cold and uncomfortable, and he wonders if anyone would mind if Dirk got under with him to keep him warm like when they're at home.

"You got a concussion, honey. So, you just need to take it easy for a little while, okay?" He can't see anything very well, but he reaches up to touch his face and feels a wide scab reaching over the bridge of his nose. "Your face got a little scraped up from the fall. Don't touch it."

His hand falls back to his side. "Where are my glasses?"

"They broke," says Dirk. He's pulling them out of his pocket in three pieces, and Jake is thinking that he'll have to get new ones before he recognizes that he's looking at the bruised and bloody knuckles of Dirk's hand, and he frowns, remembering a wobbly fragment of what he saw when the coach was carrying him into the building.

"Were you fighting with someone?"

"Yeah. I got suspended."

Then, because he can't resist, and even though he's worried and wants to ask lots of other things, all that comes to him is: "Did you win?" Dirk grins, passing over the glasses parts to him, and nods.

"If he calls you 'Engrish' anymore, it'll be 'cause I punched his teeth out and he talks like a gimp now." Then, Jake remembers his own lost teeth and asks if the tooth fairy came. His grandmother smiles and leans over to kiss his forehead.

It's a month before he's allowed to go back to school, and even then he's not allowed to go to the bathroom without a monitor or play rowdy games with the other kids. The boy who hit him with the ball looks really rough when he apologizes, missing teeth like Dirk said and sporting some nasty black and purple bruises. Jake doesn't know if he says he's sorry because Dirk made him or because he feels as bad as he says he does, but he's not really mad at the kid for hitting him with the ball as much as he's mad that he laughed at him for it afterward. He tells him it's okay, but the apology doesn't help his boredom. It would be worse, but Roxy brings him a book from her house because she thinks he'll like it.

"It'sa adventure book!" she says, smiling at him while he sits in the blue plastic chair beside the coach, and then she leans down to kiss him on the cheek, holding her scarf back with a hand so that it doesn't fall in his face. He waves her off, flustered at the kiss, and she winks at him before running off to play with Jane on the jungle gym. Though he'd rather be out there playing with them, he decides to give the book a try because it's his only option, and Roxy went through the trouble of bringing it. Opening the cover, he sees an entire page covered with doodles of wizards and kittens, and there are so many big words that he wonders if it's really Roxy's book because he can't understand them. Knowing it would be rude to ask, he tells the coach he needs some help.

In one callused, hairy hand, he takes it from Jake, squatting next to his chair, and splits a grin. "Robinson Crusoe, eh? Want me to read it to you?"

"Yes, please," he says with a smile that hurts his face a little because it pulls on the scab, and the coach grunts, opening the first page with a bushy eyebrow raised at the doodles.

In an affected voice, he begins to read, "I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country..." Dirk is down on the playground with Roxy and Jane because the other kids have been told they're supposed to leave Jake alone to rest. Otherwise, Dirk would be there with him, he thinks, because he's already sworn off playing with the other boys after what happened. He believes what Jake said about the teasing now, and promises that he won't let it happen again, but Jake doesn't know if 'it' is the disbelief or the teasing. Whichever it is, he knows that Dirk means what he says.

The tale of Robinson Crusoe turns out to be an incredible one, and it only takes another month of recesses for the coach to finish reading it to him. Sometimes he has to stop him to ask what certain words mean, but the adventure isn't lessened by it, and when Dirk is sitting in his bedroom with him after school, it's the only thing he talks about. While he's not allowed to go to the park, Dirk doesn't leave his side. Even when he's supposed to be grounded for fighting, he's tucked away under the covers with Jake listening to Robinson Crusoe's escapades with shipwrecks and cannibals, and he's a lot quieter than he normally is, but he says nothing's wrong when Jake asks. After he gets better, the first thing they do is join a pirate crew, even though Dirk insists he's still a samurai and not a pirate.

"My sword is still just for princesses," he says.

"We'll definitely have to rescue some," Jake returns with a grin, spinning the shiny plastic click-guns he got for his birthday around his fingers. Dirk shrugs, climbing the rope ladder to the platform, and eventually Jake forgets about the princesses, too busy keeping a horde of cannibals who want to eat the King and Queen from burning down the castle they're guarding.

When he returns Roxy's book to her the next Monday, he asks if she has anymore like it, and it makes her so happy that she brings a sack so full of her mother's books to school the next day that she has to drag it on the floor behind her because it's too heavy for her to lift and definitely too many for him to read before the school year ends. She tells him he can keep them and give them back next year.

Summer takes longer to catch up with them this time, but when it does the doctors have stopped pestering him as much about being careful, and he's ready to have some real fun. They take to the tall trees, finding low branches to grab and pull themselves up to the tops because Jake wants to know what the view from a crow's nest is like, and this is the best way to find out. Dirk always makes him go up first because he's not careful, doesn't look where he's going, and if he looks like he'll miss a step while he's busy talking, Dirk will yell at him and make him pay attention. Jake tells him that he worries too much, that he's surefooted as a cat, and they climb as far as they can before stopping to rest and talk, even when Dirk is still dubious about his carelessness.

His grandma takes them to the waterpark when it gets too hot for climbing trees, and Jake laughs at how funny they look after a day of swimming, burned noses and shoulders all bright red when they go home smelling like chlorine and sunblock. It turns to tan eventually, and when Dave finally comes down the summer's nearly over, and he comments on how brown they are. Dirk tells him he looks sick and pale for someone who spends so much time in California, and even Jake notices that Dave looks hurt, because he came with good news: one of his movie scripts has been picked up. Dirk says congratulations and pulls Jake to his room. After that, things are tense between the two of them, but no one will talk about it, and Dirk still calls Dave an asshole when he goes back to California. Hugs become more frequent than ever.

Third grade's different from second in a lot of ways, mostly because he and Dirk aren't in the same class anymore, which is the worst part. He feels alone. Not just lonely, but isolated, because no one in his class will come near him except for Jane, and it's not the same as having Dirk there. She doesn't get things the way he does. The work is harder, too. It takes longer to do his homework in the afternoons than it used to, and now he has to study to keep up, so he has even less time left to spend doing what he likes. Because his old glasses had been broken, he'd gotten a new pair - a cooler pair - with smaller rims because he's tired of being called 'coke bottle,' but that's not a problem anymore anyway. People remember what Dirk did, how he hurt the boy who hurt Jake English, and they leave him alone because being mean isn't worth it. A few of them have got all of their permanent teeth, and they don't want to get them knocked out, but Jake doesn't mind being left alone so much because he's got Jane and her hugs and Roxy and her books and Dirk and his sword, and that's all he wants. That's all he'll ever need.

It's three in the afternoon, and the house smells like the warm pumpkin pie his grandma's making. It has his mouth watering as he's sitting at the coffee table in the living room finishing his times tables. Multiplication isn't so bad, but division is ridiculous, so he always picks those problems out to do first, and he's almost done when there's a knock at the door. It's Dirk. He knows it's Dirk. He's already finished his homework or decided not to do it and come to take Jake to their park for an adventure. He's letting himself inside before anyone has to tell him because Jake's house is his more like his first home than his second, and he hasn't needed permission for a long time. "Hi, Mrs. Harley," he says, and Jake knows something is wrong when he doesn't call her 'Grandma.' The pen falls with a clatter to the table, and he's standing to go into the dining room where they're talking. Before he makes it there, Dirk is standing in the doorway to the living room. He's wearing a pair of sunglasses that Jake's never seen before that are like Dave's, but pointier around the edges, and Jake is about to ask him what's wrong when he's cut off.

"The park sucks. Let's do something else today." It shocks Jake in a way that stings, and he's too unexpectedly hurt to have enough time to put up a defense. Besides, this is Dirk, and why would he need to defend against him? He doesn't know, but it suddenly feels like he should.

"Alright," he says, because he doesn't know what else to say. Dirk doesn't have his sword with him, so he doesn't bother going to his room to grab his pistols. Dirk doesn't act like he's in the mood to play, anyway.

His homework isn't finished, but he doesn't have much left, so he promises his grandma that he'll do it when he comes home. She concedes that it's fine and tells Dirk that she's making his favorite for dinner, so she'll give him a ride home later if he wants to stay and have some. He thanks her and holds the door open for Jake when they leave, but doesn't say if he will. They don't speak to each other for the first part of their walk to the park, and when they pass the car lot, Jake starts to turn in out of habit. He stops himself and has to talk to break the awkward wall that's been unpleasantly built up between them. "So, what do you want to do?" he asks, and Dirk shrugs.

"Let's see if we can get lost."

"Why do you want to get lost?" His eyebrows furrow, and he really wants to know what's wrong with Dirk, but he always says 'nothing,' so asking would be a waste of time.

"I don't know, I just do. Let's try it," he says. His hands are in his pockets, and Jake can't tell what he's looking at behind the sunglasses, so he goes along with it. It's a strange atmosphere, and he doesn't know what else to do. Gray storm clouds are churning past one another overhead, and it looks so much like it'll rain that Jake knows it won't, but everything on the ground is pale and washed out in the rainy light. Cutting another glance at Dirk, he can't resist asking anymore.

"Why are you wearing sunglasses?"

"They're cool," he says, and that's all he says before he's walking faster, and Jake is struggling to keep up with him comfortably.

For hours, they move through the streets trying to get lost like Dirk wants, but they know them so well that it's useless. They've been here their whole lives, may as well have paved the streets, and when the gray clouds have all come together in the middle, the sky looks black, but they'll be lucky if they even get drizzle. The longer they walk, the more he accepts they can't get lost, the more agitated and sullen Dirk becomes. He realizes at some point that Dirk is treating him like he treats Dave, and when they find themselves standing in front of his red brick house after walking all day, he doesn't know how to feel about it, but they stop when they come around the edge of the tall wooden fence with the flowering vines that isn't as tall as it used to be, and he's looking at Dirk's driveway. There's a moving truck and a 'For Sale' sign in the yard, and the floor falls away beneath his feet, telling him exactly how to feel about things. Dirk won't even look at him, but it doesn't make a difference because all he can see are marker words scrawled on boxes being carted from the house to the back of the truck.

"You're moving? But you can't move. Why are you moving?" This isn't right. He doesn't want Dirk to leave him.

"I have to. This place is dumb, and I don't want to go to the park anymore. It's dumb, too." He tries to walk away then, and Jake doesn't know whether to cry or punch him because this is worse than being knocked face down in the mud and getting laughed at for it, so he grabs his shirt and pulls him back because this is unacceptable, and he wants to talk to Dirk.

"The park isn't dumb!"

"Yes it is. The park is dumb. All of our adventures are dumb. They're really fucking dumb, so don't talk to me anymore," he yells, and then he yanks his arm away from Jake and runs inside, slamming the door after him.

He's left standing there alone, pale because of rainy light and the feeling of total wrongness, and when someone comes around the edge of the moving truck carrying a big cardboard box marked 'Dirk's room,' he hates everything. The blinds to Dirk's window are closed when he looks, so he turns away and goes tearing the vines and the flowers off the fence as he does, angrier than he's ever been at anything in his life.

His grandma asks him where Dirk is when he gets home, and he tells her that he's moving and that he doesn't want to finish his homework because he hates Dirk, and he hates times tables, too, and pumpkin pie is the worst. She lets him keep crying when he starts, and in the morning he finds that she's already finished his homework for him and put it in his bag. It helps because he can't focus on math. All he can think of is that, no matter where Dirk lives now, it won't be the same. Their park won't be holding them together anymore, and he wishes Dirk hadn't cursed because he means what he says when he curses. He also wishes that it had rained because when the storm clouds move away quietly in the night, and the sun is shining the next day, it feels all wrong.

And then the perfect years are over just like that.

The first time he tries to have an adventure by himself, he misses a step while climbing a tree and falls down, fracturing his arm. It has to be set in a cast, and even though he lets Roxy scribble all over it with gel pens until there isn't a clean space left, it still reminds him when he looks at it that it's not as fun to pretend by himself which means that he can't pretend anymore because that's all he has, and he doesn't go back to the park after that. Dirk is always gone when he looks for him after class - to tell him what, he isn't sure, but it'd probably be that he's a jerk - and no one knows where he lives, so he takes it as a hint that Dirk really doesn't want to talk to him. Even though he's tried, he can't hate him for it because he just wants his friend back.

Zoning out starts to happen more frequently than ever because his adventures all happen in his head now, where he's one of the heroes from his movies or from Roxy's stories, and when he's not at school he's in his bedroom at home with his nose tucked in a book. He does his homework during recess because no one plays with him anyway, and he doesn't want to have to do it when he gets home. Jane and Roxy sit with him in the cafeteria in the morning and at lunch, but they don't know what Dirk's been up to, either. Roxy says he hasn't been to class in a long time and that he's probably going to a different school, but Jake doesn't like to think about that, so he doesn't talk about Dirk anymore. Third grade is unnecessarily drawn out, and he gets in trouble a lot for reading in class when he's supposed to be doing work. Most of his tests are handed in with doodles of explorers or spies or, sometimes, samurais, and he gets in trouble for that, too.

His grandma worries that he isn't going outside enough anymore and asks if he wants to go back 'home' for the summer. It catches him off guard, and he knows that when she calls England home she means that it's her home, but it's still funny to hear it described that way because it's an alien place to him now. Texas is his home, where his friends are, and that's what he'll always call it, but he can't remember what Britain is like, and he's itching to go exploring again. England seems like as good an idea as any, and they have family there who want them to visit, so it's the perfect opportunity. He gets picked up early from school two days before the semester has officially ended, his two suitcases full of books crammed into the trunk of their tiny car as they're making their way to the airport. It's too early for anyone else to be out of school yet, and the park is deserted and quiet when they drive past.

The trip is fine. There aren't any spectacular parks near by to run around in, and compared to Texas he thinks 'English' summers are unbearably cold and wet, so he spends most of his vacation indoors reading, anyway. It's not as different as he remembered it to be aside from the names of things, but he enjoys that everyone speaks the same way he does. Not standing out for that is a change he welcomes readily. Aside from the times they go out to explore the town and shop for groceries, they stay at home, and his grandma's cousins are all very nice, older ladies and gentlemen. When they aren't busy, he likes to ask them for stories which they're all too happy to recant, and he often replaces the names of the people in the stories with names of people he knows. It's not the most exciting vacation, but it's better than he imagined he could have without someone to trailblaze beside him, and they're leaving when he asks his grandmother if they can come back the next summer. She tells him that they'll start planning for the next trip right away.

When fourth grade starts, his accent is much more pronounced, and after Jane makes a comment about it on the first day back, everyone around them bristles even though they all know Dirk is gone. He's living on the coast with his brother, and he isn't coming back, and the hurt that came with finding that out was only marginally outweighed by the hurt that came from knowing that Dirk had seen him before he'd gone and hadn't said a word. He wouldn't pick a fight with Jane even if he were there, but no one's forgotten what happened the last time someone said something about it, and it becomes the norm to stay ten feet away from Jake.

"I went to England for the summer holiday," he tells her, and she's full of questions that he answers happily because she's one of the only two people his own age who talks to him now.

Spending his school years mostly alone and his summers hanging out with elderly relatives in another country leaves him socially unequipped, so making friends isn't something he understands the mechanics of. He recedes into himself when the girls and boys around him are just starting to blossom, and it's hard for him to scrape by unscathed by it all. He still wants an adventure, but it becomes less looking for literal treasures as time goes on and more pining for an escape, daydreaming incessantly about being off on his own in a place where he can breathe and stretch his legs without accidentally kicking someone who'd intentionally stuck their ass out looking for a fight. When the coach recommends that he take up a sport to help coax him out of his shell, he decides on track because the only other thing he wants to do is roll around on the floor tussling with people, and there's no wrestling team until junior high. It almost defeats the entire purpose, but running is easy for him, and he loves it just a little. All he has to do is go, and as long as he's fast no one cares if he is or isn't speaking, which is a relief because there's always someone hassling him for either.

Running is a way to win. He can daydream quietly all he likes and receive nothing but praise for it when he finally comes to a stop which usually takes a while because he's antsy. There's no one to run around with him expending energy anymore, and it hurts his grandmother to see him always cooped up in his room alone, so he stays out whenever he can, toting a book to the park and laying out on the platform to read it until there's not enough sunlight left to pick out the words. The park is feeling the strain of time, too. None of the people he knows go there anymore like they did when they were younger. The girls are worried about the boys now, and the boys are equally worried about the girls, so they don't care that it's mostly decrepit except for the worn down bike trails which are still used by joggers. There's nothing left to do there, but he can't stop himself from going. It's the last place he felt really good about things, the place he was before weighing options and concealing himself even though no one will speak to him if they see him started to be necessary to getting by. His grandmother buys him a computer for his tenth birthday, and when he's playing games online or talking to people he meets over the internet, he feels close to that kind of good, but he would rather still be outside in the sun.

Seeing everyone change around him when he's so perfectly stuck makes him wonder what's wrong with him, why he doesn't breeze through it like they all do, and when elementary school eventually slides away from him, dumping him weak-kneed and physically worn out on the steps of junior high, he's nothing but lost in the world.

His alarm clock has become more of an annoyance, and when it blares obscenely in his ears at six o'clock on that first morning, he's exhausted from staying up all night. There's a bent paged copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being crushed between his chest and his mattress, but he doesn't regret that he decided to read it instead of sleep because it was a good one, and he's wrenching himself away from his warm covers to reach over and slap the snooze button.

There's an outfit of khaki shorts and a t-shirt that his grandmother cleaned and folded for him the night before, something simple she hopes will make his day easy, she told him before she went to bed. While he likes his clothes, he's never sure before he leaves the house if he's dressed like a target or wallpaper, and those are the only two options that have been available to him for a long time. Roxy's books have an entire shelf in his house, now, and sometimes she uses that as an excuse to drag Jane over with her to bother him about getting his act together socially, and he guesses he could have worse professors. Jane has money, and she's cute, so she gets by easily enough. Naturally the life of the party, Roxy is popular for her own reasons, and together they try to help him, but he doesn't understand why the things he likes are different in such an important way from the things he needs to like to be accepted, and most of the time they spend trying to help him is wasted. Jane is more frustrated by it than Roxy, and most of the flak he catches comes from her.

"You're cute," Roxy tells him when they're all cramped on her couch one chilly night in autumn and he's silently mouthing the lines to the movie they're watching, "but you're hopeless." She drinks alcohol now, so he tosses a piece of popcorn from the bowl at his feet into her martini glass. Jane laughs at them, and he thinks maybe it's true that he's hopeless. There's not a lot that he hopes for, just a place where he isn't told he's a square peg in a round hole when he doesn't feel like one. He just feels like a peg apart. Everything else is how he wants it to be; he just doesn't see the differences in the pegs that everyone else does or why it matters so much.

Other counties are already in Junior high by sixth grade, but he has to wait until seventh to say the same about himself, and it's hard to get used to how different it is. The clothes he needs to wear, the supplies he needs not just for the classwork but for the social work (which is even more grueling), the music he needs to listen to, it all changes as drastically as the scenery, and he feels like he's stepping into a war zone as he's opening the glass door to the school. There's a thick layer of condensation on the inside of the glass, and it makes him shiver when he passes from the muggy blue morning outside to the polar florescent hallway shouldering his backpack. There are temporarily eyes on him. Some he knows, many he's never seen before, and he's instinctively aware that these people won't just leave him alone because they've gotten used to it over the years. This is a dangerous place, and not knowing how to act around any of them is more of a handicap than ever, but he holds out hope that he might accidentally do the 'cool' thing, and the day might go well.

A sheet of paper is folded up in his pocket, his new schedule with the names of his teachers and the room numbers, but this new school is an unfamiliar labyrinth, and asking for help would be a bad idea because it'll open him up to getting screwed with, so he takes his chances with wandering around exploring, memorizing which halls lead where. Sometimes he gets cornered into holding doors open for the girls who are coming through behind him, and it's a pleasant surprise when they thank him and smile. His suspicion lessens and he wonders if, maybe instead of being ostracized, this will be a new chance. He's holding the door open for an older looking girl when the first bell rings, and he decides to risk it, taking out his schedule to ask if she can help him.

"Oh, yes. I know where that is. You can follow me. It's on the way to my class."

"Thank you very much. I do appreciate it," he says, trailing behind her. She's very pretty with her short black bob and blue cotton dress, and she's nodding.

"Of course. It's my pleasure to help when I can." They're walking brusquely up the long hall, trying to make it before the five minute bell rings and they're tardy. "Are you from here?"

He smiles and gives a noncommittal shrug. "I assume you're asking because of my accent?" She nods, and he sighs. "Well, I wasn't born here, but I grew up here. For the past many years, I've been returning to England for vacation. It's so easy to forget myself there that I always come back with more affected speech. But I truly love it, so I don't mind." Her eyebrows knit in the middle and she looks at him, stopping in front of a tall wooden door. She gestures to it with her head, and he realizes it's his room.

"Why on Earth would you mind? British accents are extremely cute." It's the first time in his life that he's ever heard someone say anything like that, and his laugh is genuine.

"I thank you, miss, for saying so."

"My name is Aranea, and it was good to meet you." She extends her free hand to him, and he eagerly takes it, giving it a firm shake and the biggest smile he's had for a long time because no one's ever shaken his hand without prompt before.

"Jacob English. Jake if you prefer."

"Yes, very good to meet you, Jake. Well, I'll be late for class if I don't go now, so have a pleasant first day," she says, and then she's moving back down the hallway, a stack of books tucked against her chest, and he turns around to open the door to his classroom. There are one or two familiar faces, but the rest of them are new, and after his conversation with Aranea they look even more like sharks than they usually do. Only two chairs are left - one in the back corner, one in the second row back - and the teacher waves him over to collect his schedule while he mentally psyches himself up.

"Jake English." She's an older woman who smells like hospital soap, and she looks tired. "I'm bad with names, but if you give me a little time I'll remember who you are. Just remind me if I forget." She puts a check beside his name on the roster resting on her desk, and the second bell is ringing. "Have you seen your other classmate?" she asks, pointing him to the chair near the front, "Dirk Strider?"

"Dirk Strider?" There's a scrape and a squeak, and the classroom door is opening again.

"Present," says an unfamiliar voice from behind him, and he spins on his heel to see the cardboard cutout of a person that had stopped existing in the same world as him when he was eight, a boy who everyone by the fifth grade knew had skipped off to California to live with his Hollywood film director brother. Jake's breath catches, and all he can think of, looking at this tall, scratchy voiced boy with muscles starting to harden under his brown skin, is being five years old and feeling jealous that the sopping wet kid he'd just soaked with his water pistols had already lost a tooth and he hadn't. But not entirely, because this feeling is a dimension deeper than that.

He's walking toward the teacher's desk with his schedule in his fingers, and there are tan lines on his wrist from a band or a bracelet, and Jake can only stand there like an idiot because his first impulse is to say hello, the second is to throw his arms around Dirk and ask what the hell happened, and then the third is to run for cover because he remembers that day when the rug was snatched out from under him and his best friend in the whole world gave him the quintessential 'fuck off.'

"Hi, English," he whispers, leaning forward to say it so that only he can hear while the teacher is checking his name off on the roster, and Jake can tell from this close that he's looking at his eyes from behind the same pointed sunglasses he was wearing the day he slammed the door in his face.

"Hello, Dirk," he says, and just saying it is weird. It earns him this little smile that defines the day as the greatest in his life, and the teacher tells him he can take his seat, and he does, but he almost trips and falls on his face on the way there. People laugh, but he's too elated to care, so he just keeps smiling when he plunks down in his chair.

"Problem, dick dusters?" Dirk shoots off, hand on his hip like he's ready to fight the whole class, and it shocks everyone into shutting up and looking at the teacher because who swore in front of teachers?

"Language, Dirk. One more time and I have to refer you, and I really don't want to have to do that on the first day. Also, we don't wear sunglasses in the building, and you're late."

"I have clearance for both," he says, and there's another pair of notes in his hand. She takes them and scans them over before passing them back to him and pointing him to his chair at the back. A boy sticks out his foot to try and trip him on his way down the rows, but Dirk sees it coming and steps on his ankle with his entire weight, muttering 'oops' without looking back when the boy yells in pain. Jake watches it happen and thinks that this person is different from the Dirk he knew, but as long as it's still the same Dirk, he can relearn.

All period, he's constantly turned around in his seat to look at Dirk, who looks up at him from his paper sometimes and smiles, shaking his head. The teacher tells him repeatedly to face the front, and by the time class is over Dirk is almost laughing at him, but he can't quit staring, can't quit thinking about how good it feels to see him. It's been hard to be alone, but seeing Dirk there in front of him reminds him that he wasn't always that way, and he's not the same boy just wading through the sludge of the day that he was when he woke up because the person who understands is back. When the period is finally over, he's out of his seat in a flash, waiting by the door for Dirk to put his things in his bag. Jake thinks he's going intentionally slowly because he's the last one left when everyone else has gone to the next period, but then he slings the straps over his shoulders, and he's walking toward Jake, and there's no more reason to hold back. He steps up and gives Dirk the tightest hug he can manage because he didn't realize until he was staring him in the face how much he'd been missed. Dirk's arms are squeezing him just as tightly when he says, "Hey, Princess."

Jake steps away, laughing. "You are unbelievable. I can't - I - I'm just," There's so much he wants to tell Dirk, but there aren't enough words or time for it, so he does the best he can as they're heading out the door and down the packed hall. "I'm just so delighted to see you here. I was sure you'd moved to California! I mean, after that day," he says, and then his smile falters, and so does Dirk's. He can tell they're both thinking about it, and suddenly the air is tense between them because there was a lot that should have been said that day that wasn't, and he hurt for a long time because of it. Dirk's face slips into something unreadable, but he nods.

"I'm sorry," he says, and it's so sincere that Jake's at a loss for what to do next because the mood is all off, so he lands a light punch against his shoulder. This should be happy. This is happy.

"All in the past. The key is that you're here again, eh?" Dirk shrugs, so he presses on. "Where did you move?"

"I did go to Cali, but I'm back for good this time."

"Oh." His face has begun to ache from how much he's been smiling, but knowing that it's been so long since he has only makes it worse. "I'm glad you're back. I missed you," he says, and Dirk is pulling the tip of one of his hoodie's drawstrings into his mouth to chew on. "but you were kind of abrupt and injurious that day. I never did get a real explanation, so..." Dirk cuts his eyes at him, and if he has to wear those glasses, Jake wants to stay as close as he is right now so that he can always tell when they're on him.

"Why did you leave?"

"You remember that day in second grade," and Jake knows which one he means without needing elaboration, "and I fought that kid. His mother sued my brother and the school district because I put an indisputable smackdown on his ass. It was pretty bad press for my bro when he was trying to get his movie off the ground, and I was kicked out of the district, so I lived with him until the journalists stopped beating down the door for details and I was old enough to come back for middle school in a separate district." Jake doesn't remember ever hearing about any lawsuits, or maybe he had heard about them and he was too young to understand what they meant, but learning about it from Dirk makes him feel like he should be the one apologizing. If he'd been paying attention that day, maybe it wouldn't have happened, he thinks, but it's an awkward situation, and he's struggling to find words to tell him how sorry he is. Before Jake can even say anything, Dirk's grinning like a fox and using the tip of the drawstring he isn't chewing on to tickle Jake's ear, and he forgets about speaking in favor of punching Dirk in the arm again.

This is happy.

All of their classes are shared with the same people, and they find that the bell system is really more for show than anything else. They could technically stay in one room and just have the teachers circle around to them, but they're grateful for it if for no other reason than because in two of the classes they get to pick their seats, and Jake sits beside Dirk in both of them, reigning in his desire to talk his ear off because he knows it will eventually get him in trouble, and he'll have to change seats. It's with all of his effort that he manages, and every time he turns his head to say something to Dirk, he has to catch himself and shut his mouth. Being around Dirk is easy, and he misses it more now that realizes how good it feels not to have to struggle to communicate. They pass notes to each other until they can talk at lunch or in the hall, and then it's mostly Jake realizing that, when he describes his past years out loud, they sound kind of bleak. He tries not to be so lost for words when Dirk makes comments like "You grew up pretty, English," and doesn't know how to describe Dirk in return, so he just calls him cool. Dirk doesn't say much about his time in California, and this thing is still delicate, so Jake doesn't want to flip the table over on top of it and smother its first breath after being held under for so long without air by prying.

P.E. finds him signing up to be on the wrestling team because it's the first time he's had the chance, and he can't wait to try out. Track seems sad and useless now that Dirk is home, but Dirk's into fencing now, and the school doesn't have a sponsored fencing team, so he joins the anime club instead and says he'll find an academy to join, and it goes without saying that they'll exchange emails. Dirk doesn't believe Jake when he tells him that he's actually pretty good at tinkering with machines, but they decide they'll see who's better at it with a competition eventually. Everything is great until sixth period, when Dirk refuses to say the pledge. The teacher can't force him to say it or say anything to him when he doesn't, but when the voice of the lady in the office crackles across the speakers and everyone else in the class has their hands over their hearts, reciting on autopilot, they're staring at him like they're sharks again. It makes Jake feel like leaving his hand by his side so that Dirk isn't alone is his duty as a concerned bystander as well as a friend. No one says anything about it while the period is going, but Jake can hear them talking as they walk out the door. Not because they care about the pledge, but because he pissed off the teacher - the second of the day - and that's going to come back to bite him in the ass. One boy has such a problem with it that he stops them on their way out the door, and Jake's nerves are tested by the hold up. There's everything else he wants to be doing.

"Is it because you have to say 'God?' " he asks, and once again they're the last stragglers in the room. The teacher is eyeballing them from her desk, still not legally allowed to comment but very tuned in. Jake watches her shuffle things around on her desk as he stands by the door, shifting on his feet because patriotism is fucking up the plans he's been working on since first period.

"No." Dirk says curtly.

"Are you religious?"

Dirk gives him such an exasperated look that, even from behind the shades, Jake can tell he's annoyed. "I believe in heaven, if that's the answer you're looking for."

"You have to be good enough to get in. Not saying the pledge is like renouncing God, and if you renounce God, you can't go. "

"Good," he says, closing his notebook and putting the cap on his pen as he rises from his seat to meet Jake at the door, and he wants to go, has been ready to get out of there since he woke up that morning, but Dirk's answers to these questions interest him as much as they do the teacher who's not even pretending to be tidying up anymore.

"You don't want to go to heaven?"



Dirk spins on his heels then, nearly making the boy run into him. "Because heaven's not a just a reward, it's a responsibility. And for the record, it's not a case of 'being good enough' to get in. It's luck. There's no exact science behind it. Some people get lucky, and some people don't, so you could be Mother Teresa, and if you're unlucky your ass will still get stuck on the outside looking in. And what if you do get in? What if, one day, you find yourself in heaven, and suddenly it's pushing maximum capacity, so God says, 'Okay, this half stays, and this half goes,' and you're part of the group that has to go? What if you lost heaven? In that case, it would've logically been better just to dream about it from the outside because wanting something doesn't hurt, but having something and losing it hurts more than anything. And if you're going to get kicked out of heaven anyway, then it doesn't fucking matter if you say the pledge of allegiance or not. Of all the examples of how 'good' you were, to have that be the one weighed for your entrance or denial of heaven is the lamest thing I've ever heard. You'd probably be kicked out just on principle if that's all that got you in." The teacher's mouth parts like she's about to speak, but she doesn't, and Jake is lost for words listening to this new Dirk. His want to go is rivaled by his want to stay just so that he can hear him talk, but then he thinks that, maybe, this isn't a new Dirk. Maybe this is just an honest Dirk. There's no memory example of him ever saying anything like this for Jake to be sure.

"That's not a real reason. You can't get kicked out of heaven."

"You're so pathetically basic."

"And you think you're so cool, don't you?"


"Whatever. At least I know I'm going to heaven."

Dirk winks at him sarcastically and makes guns of his fingers, pointing them at the kid as they're backing out of the classroom, and Jake doesn't comment on his answers, but he's never thought of heaven that way before. It's sad to him that Dirk has knocked around the idea of eternal paradise until he's reached the conclusion that it's a game of luck and not work. He isn't religious, but he thinks he understands the gist of religion, and it never seemed as hopeless as Dirk makes it sound.

When he follows in behind Jake after school, his grandma spends several minutes giving him an even tighter hug than Jake did. They decide to spend their first afternoon together at the park for old time's sake - sitting up on the scuffed up platform talking for hours about nothing that will ever matter - and even though the sky is stony gray and drumming on the breeze's back like it'll be storming soon, Jake knows this is how it's supposed to be, heaven or no.