He starts to flourish again. Just having someone else sit with him and listen to what he says without fighting about it or needing to say anything in return makes it easy to breathe in and out and repeat and repeat until he doesn't have to force himself anymore. There's no struggle or need to come to terms with the way his piece doesn't fit into the puzzle because it does. Dirk makes it fit. Dirk fits him, and after Jane and Roxy get their fill of him, it's only the two of them left, and it's almost like it always was.

Except that Dirk is different.

After the first day, he's not so unpopular. He's an enigma - a tall, tanned, blonde enigma who swears in front of the teachers and won't cut corners, and Jake finds one day it's been almost unanimously decided that he defines cool with his subtle, witty jibes and unintended charm. Girls pay attention when he speaks and, more incredibly, so do the boys. In class, he says things just because he knows he can get away with it, but with Jake he's quiet in a way that's overbearing because he knows now that Dirk has big thoughts. He has big ideas and won't say a word about them after that day in sixth period, but Jake can't forget it and finds that he's looking to Dirk for commentary whenever he catches himself in the middle of a tangent. He never has any, just listens until Jake's finished and accepts him without question. On days when they lie together at the park, lounging in the tall grass and watching the treetops strain against the blue sky to brush the clouds, it makes Jake feel like everything he says is important and poignant. It's what he needs to catch up and know that he's moving in time with everyone else again, this understanding, and he tries not to let Dirk's quietness get him down about it, but there's a new distance between them. He guesses that's to be expected after so long, and it's just another new side of Dirk that he wants to be able to accept.

No one else ever knows what he's talking about, and sometimes people will laugh and tell him he's on another planet, and though it's mostly good-natured now, Dirk is always quick to his defense. Jake tries explaining that it doesn't matter to him, but all Dirk says is, "It matters to me," so he decides to let him do what he wants. When they're alone, he tells Jake that he needs to be more aware when people are taking advantage at his expense and take care of it himself. So, he tries, and it works. The comments stop, and he finds himself not so isolated anymore. In the mornings, people say hello, and in the afternoons, it's "Bye, Dirk-and-Jake" as they're walking out. He's included. They're a pair again.

Thursdays are days for the anime club, and it's a lot more fun than Jake expects. Dirk drags him along, and the people there are all nice enough, so he stays, and the cartoons - "Anime, dude. It's called anime," Dirk reminds him. - are pretty good, too. He returns the favor on Fridays and makes Dirk wait for him after wrestling practice, and although he's not terrifically strong at the start, he's relentless, so he makes a good impression on the rest of the team. Eventually, his list of email contacts is fifty people long, but sometimes he goes offline to all of them except Dirk because, though his new friends accept him, they still don't understand him, and he enjoys feeling like he and Dirk are separate from the rest of the world. Like they used to be.

It's probably not the same for Dirk, he realizes, because he's starting to get attention from people who know that he's Dave's brother, and he has to act a certain way, keep his guard up when he's running in his wide social circles, because some of them are looking to use him for his name.

It's a bus ride across town to get to his new place, a small apartment complex too far away from the park to make a comfortable walk. Dave stayed on the coast, but he has a twenty-four hour caretaker he brought with him from California. He's less like a caretaker and more like a vague, adult presence who's making a bad attempt at imitating a parent, and he makes Jake nervous when they meet for the first time, hulking and musclebound and glowering when he steps into the den. Trying to introduce himself leaves him standing awkwardly with his hand thrust out for a shake when the man turns away from him and moves off into the apartment. Dirk says to pretend like he's furniture.

They spend their time in his new room when he doesn't have fencing class. It's smaller than his old one but full of new equipment, puppets (some a lot less innocuous than they used to be, which Dirk says is a joke), and posters. It's a cluttered, familiar mess that he revels to be in again.

He's laying on the bed waiting for Dirk to put on a movie when the caretaker comes in to say that he's ordering dinner, so Jake should leave, and Dirk tells him not to be an inhospitable asshole to his guests and to get something for Jake, too. The caretaker stares at him lounging on the bed, and it makes him uncomfortable like he's not welcome, and he wishes it were Dave instead.

"He's allergic to peanuts," Dirk says when the caretaker looks like he's going to walk away. He's peeling a DVD from the case, and Jake is surprised he still remembers. "Keep that in mind, and get actual food this time." There's no response before he walks out, leaving them alone again.

When Dirk slides in next to him, propping his head on a stack of pillows, he turns and asks, "Why isn't Dave here?"

The sunglasses have become Dirk's face; he wears them like a mask, and Jake misses seeing his eyes. If he could see Dirk's eyes, he thinks, it would get rid of some of the space between them. He might be able to tell what he's thinking even when he won't say anything.

"Because he's only ever had one priority," Dirk says, shifting around looking for remote. They're lying on their stomachs facing the television past the foot of the bed, and after he finds it hidden in the folds of his comforter and turns the volume up loud enough that he worries the caretaker in the front room will hear it and come back to bother them, Jake wants to un-ask the question. He scoots closer and wonders if Dirk still wishes it were Dave, too, but as long as Dirk is back with him, he doesn't care about much else.

Green grass yellows, yellow leaves redden, red berries blacken, and the summer is autumn.

His body has toughened from months of wrestling, and he's confident and excited and allowed to be now that he's not the butt of every joke. Black and orange Halloween decorations fill the yards and the hallways, and 'party' is the first word on everyone's tongue when it's less than a week away. He's getting attention from girls, which is an odd development that he's almost more unprepared for than he was for making friends, and the people around him are constantly asking if he's going to do anything special or stay home passing out candy. He doesn't have any plans, he tells them, careful not to let it slip that it's because he isn't sure, if Dirk hadn't come along when he did, that the year would have gone as well as it has, and a party with huge crowds of strangers is just a step farther than the social line he's been toeing. Roxy ribs him for it at lunch, saying there are lots of cute girls who want him to go to their house and do "something," putting an emphasis on the "something" that Jake knows is meant to fluster him. Jane tells her not to be crass about it and invites them all over to her house for a friendly gathering. She promises it'll be small so Jake won't start worrying about lots of people, and though Dirk doesn't comment and Jake still isn't sure, Roxy corners him about it later.

They're leaving the building, and he tells Dirk to save his seat on the bus before he leaves to use the restroom. When he comes out, she's waiting: a waifish, blonde island in a rushing sea of people.

"Jake-a-doodle. There you are. Been waitin' around here for about a jillion years." He knits his eyebrows and steps forward to join her.

"How did you know I was in the lavatory?"

"Pssh. You always go to the bathroom after school. Gimme some cred, here. Anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk about."

"No," he says, confused.

"Nope. So, she asked me not to say nothing about it, but Janey really wants you to go to her party." She draws out the 'really' and bites her lower lip over a grin.

"I'd be more of a distraction from the festivities than a contributor, you know." He hates having to let his friends down, especially Jane. When Dirk was gone, Jane and Roxy became his closest friends. He wants to make them happy, he just doesn't think he can do that if he embarrasses them in front of all their other acquaintances. They're not like him; their whole world doesn't revolve around three other people.

"Duh, that's why she wants you there. To distract her." Her eyebrows waggle, and Jake is at a loss.

"I'm not sure I follow."

"Guh, holy damn, English. You're so hopeless," she says, rolling her eyes and sighing. He's looking at her for more of an explanation because he honestly has no idea what she means, but she's tired of talking and ready to move on to the next thing. "Nevermind, okay? I'll see you tomorrow." She leans forward to kiss his cheek, and by now Jake is used to her kisses and leans in to meet her, still confused as he watches her stroll away through the throng of people. It's when he climbs the steps into the bus and he sees Dirk sitting under an open window in a seat toward the back that it hits him. The sun is coming in on his face, and there's a breeze fluttering his yellow hair against the sides of his sunglasses while he's waving him over. Jake doesn't know how to react.

"I think Jane harbors romantic feelings for me," he says when he sits down. The seat is chilly.

"Oh, yeah?"

"I think that's what I'm being led to believe."

Dirk looks out the window and is quiet for the rest of the ride. The rumble of the wheels under their feet and the cacophony of the other passengers is the only noise between them, and Jake has no idea what to do.

"Do you like her?" he asks once they're settled in his room. Jake is alone on the bed, lying on his back watching the poster-covered ceiling, and Dirk is reclining against the footboard, legs folded underneath him. They haven't said a word to each other since they left the school.

"I don't know. I've never thought of her that way before, but she's an amiable gal and pretty enough. It wouldn't be so bad, and it would be awfully reprehensible of me not to try. She's my friend, after all. I have a duty to take care of her feelings."

"Before you immerse yourself in 'duty,' realize how delicate a situation like this is. You can't commandeer her feelings with good will alone, and you can't just forge yours with it either. Remember you've got independent feelings, too."

"Don't be absurd. I know I've got feelings."

"Then don't play it down like you think I'm worrying about something for no reason. I know you. Just think about yourself before you act, and don't bullshit me on this."

He doesn't know how to tell Dirk that it's hard to think of just himself when the people who matter are counting on him, but he agrees with a hum because Dirk can't see him nodding his head from the floor. "Dirk?"


"Do," he stops to figure out the right words, "you think it would be wise? To venture down this road, I mean." There's a puppet on the bed that looks like a ventriloquy dummy, and it lies limply, smiling at him with a painted red mouth and round blue eyes. He remembers it from when they were young and distractedly fingers the soft fabric over one of its long, stuffed arms. Dirk told him its name once, but he can't remember it, only that Dave gave it to him when he was a baby, and it means a lot to him.

There's a pause before he answers, and then he says, "I really can't help you with this," almost too quietly to be heard over the television. The mood is different after that, and Dirk insists that he has homework he needs to finish early in the day, leaving Jake alone to catch a ride back home with the caretaker. It's a stiflingly silent trip, and he sees why Dirk won't let him drive them anywhere. He's glad when he gets back to his house and his grandmother is sitting at the table polishing an antique rifle, something familiar and comfortable to welcome him home. When he tells her what happened and asks what he should do, she shakes her head and says that he needs to do whatever makes him happy and not worry so much about protecting other people's feelings. He gets a laugh from her when he tells her Dirk said the same thing, and she asks what he wants for dinner.

The next day, he tells Jane that, if she likes him and he isn't being too forward, he'd like to be her boyfriend. It takes her a while to respond, but when she does her smile is so enormous that he knows he made the right choice. Roxy congratulates them at lunch, but Dirk is nowhere to be found, and it's all he can think about when the two of them start talking about coordinating costumes and other party details. Dirk is the first one in the classroom when he enters, and when Jake asks where he was at lunch, he says he wasn't hungry.

"I've got prior commitments, and you should be spending time alone with Jane," Dirk tells him when Jake asks if they're going to hang out, and he opens his notebook, turning stony-faced to the front of the class. They always do something when Dirk doesn't have fencing, and he didn't realize that would change because he's dating Jane. It hurts. He wants Dirk to look at him when the lights in the room go out and the overhead projector throws white shapes and shadows on their faces, but he doesn't and ignores him for the rest of the day.

After school, he holds Jane's hand and walks her to the front to be picked up by her dad and accepts when he offers to drive him home. He's a real gentleman, the kind Jake hopes to be some day, and he doesn't ask any awkward questions on the way. The car is warmer than a bus and faster and also not as good, but he knows Dirk is right that he needs to be with Jane. That's the point, after all, to take care of her feelings like she tried to do for him when he was alone. So, he tries. The Halloween party comes, and Jane carries him around on her arm throughout the night like she couldn't be more excited. She dresses like a princess and asks to kiss him when her father is preparing to drive them home after the party ends, but Jake doesn't feel the excitement he thinks he's supposed to feel about a first kiss and tells her he might be sick from the candy so she won't be too upset. It's fine, she says. He can't stop wondering why, though he was invited, Dirk didn't come. When he finds Aranea in the library one day to ask if she knows, since she's older and knows more people, she tells him that it's better not to ask about the friends he spent the night with instead.

The distances between them lengthen, and they drift apart.

Jane sits where Dirk used to in the bleachers at his wrestling matches, and Jake stops going to the anime club so he can have time to spend with Jane after school. On the weekends, Dirk is always busy with his skateboarding friends or his fencing friends, always other friends, and he doesn't return Jake's calls until days later, claiming he doesn't get Jake's voicemails until it's late. By then, Jake is too annoyed to call him back, and eventually he stops trying, wondering why Dirk is staying out so late and if his brother knows. The only time they see each other is between classes and at lunch when Dirk decides to come, and then he won't speak, and Jake has run out of words. He wants to grab Dirk by the shoulders and shake him until he says something - anything -, until he decides to staylong enough to say it, or until he stays if he does nothing else, because Jake can't stand the cold dread that weighs on him when he gets the feeling he's losing Dirk again.

It's still dark when he arrives at the school the first morning they're back from the Thanksgiving holiday. The grass is dead and frosted, and it hisses under the rubber soles of his sneakers when he steps across the long median that separates the teachers' parking lot from the school. Jane hadn't been the only one invited to dinner at his house, but she'd been the only one there, and Jake might not have minded so much if she had eaten his grandmother's pumpkin pie, but no one touched it. The longer it sat turning cold on the table, the angrier he got that his grandmother had put her time and her care into making it for someone who couldn't even be bothered to call and wish her well. Jane had tried to kiss him again, but he told her he was in too foul of a mood, and she went home earlier than they had planned. Guilt tugs at him, and he doesn't know why the thought of kissing Jane makes him so uneasy.

He scours the parking lot to find Dirk sitting on the hood of a beat up old car with the same group of older boys and girls he's always with these days, and he hazards a 'hello' when they raise their hands to him in greeting, barely pausing in their conversations. His feet stop him in front of Dirk, who acts like he doesn't recognize him, and he tries to be as quiet as possible even though he wants to shout. It's not a request when Jake tells him to keep his schedule open for Christmas because he's coming over, and he won't go away until this is understood. No one else hears, but Dirk watches him for a second and nods, thanking the boy sitting beside him for the ride before he's sliding off the hood. It surprises him when Dirk wants to walk into the building together, and he wasn't going to yell in front of his friends, but now that they're away from them he wants to call him an asshole, and mention his grandma, and ask what he thinks he's doing staying out at all hours of the night with kids like that, but all he can manage is a bitten off, "You wouldn't know, would you?" when Dirk asks how his holiday was. His hurt is obvious when he doesn't try to talk to Jake after that, and when Dirk ignores him even more deftly than usual that day, Jake doesn't regret it as much as he probably should.

The 22nd of December finds Dirk waiting on his doorstep with his hands in his pockets, a backpack full of clothes hanging off his shoulders, and an apology to his grandmother for missing Thanksgiving, and he regrets it even less. She makes him a bed of sheets on the couch, and when Jake can't get to sleep he restlessly sneaks into the living room to find Dirk still awake at one in the morning, tired faced and glowing pink-green-red under the shifting lights on the tree in the corner. His sunglasses are folded on the scratched glass of the coffee table, and his eyes are uncovered and looking back at him, and Jake feels like he's really seeing him for the first time since he was eight. He slides over to make room for Jake to sit beside him, untangling himself from his blanket, and doesn't bother to put the glasses back on.

Jake feels so content when he snuggles down against the warm spot on the cushions that Dirk's body has left and pulls the blanket over his knees, pressing their sides together, that he lets his head lean on Dirk's shoulder. Neither says anything about the tension that's been between them for the past two months, but he knows it's okay again when Dirk hands him the remote and doesn't argue about what he picks to watch. Jake doesn't really watch it, though; he closes his eyes and concentrates on the heat against his cheek when Dirk leans his head over his own, and doesn't know that he's fallen asleep until he wakes alone on the couch in the morning with the blankets pulled around his shoulders. The sound of his grandmother talking to Dirk guides him into the kitchen, and he's disappointed to see that Dirk's wearing his glasses again, but there's a plate of toast and bacon crowded around the edges with green and red Christmas cookies set out for him, and he doesn't worry for too long.

They wait to exchange gifts until Christmas evening when Jane and Roxy come over. She leans in to kiss him when he meets her at the door, but he pretends not to notice and turns his head to ask Dirk something that he knows sounds as horrible and stupid out loud as it does in his own head. He answers without hesitation, but Jake can tell that he knows what's going on now, and Dirk knowing that he doesn't want to kiss Jane makes him feel even worse about it.

Jane gives him a card and a cake, Roxy gives him a book, and his grandmother gets him a cell phone that he stares at in shock for five minutes and knows he'll spend the next month thanking her for it. Dirk doesn't get him anything, but he does something funny to the new phone that he can't follow and says he can download whatever he wants for free now. Jake guesses that settles who's better at tinkering with machines. After everyone leaves that night and they're sitting together under the old blanket on the couch, he puts his sunglasses on the table and explains that thirteen-year-olds are too young and emotionally unprepared for a relationship when Jake says he doesn't understand why he's glad Jane didn't try to kiss him again before she went home. It makes him feel better, and this time he gets to be the one to listen quietly to someone talk until he forgets about kissing, or Jane, or the television that they aren't watching, and can't focus on anything that isn't Dirk.

He doesn't tell anyone else at school that he has a phone, which he thinks is probably smart, since Roxy sends him more messages on her own than he can keep up with. Jane trades jokes with him throughout the day, and they make him smile, but the infrequent messages that Dirk sends him are the ones he looks forward to the most, the ones that come at three in the morning to let Jake know that he got home safe. Dirk still avoids him at school, and it makes him furious and frustrated, so he's grateful for whatever he can get.

Jane tells him that Dirk is just different now, that he's not trying to hurt Jake on purpose, that he would never do that, and she leans over to hug him, linking their fingers while they sit at the bar in the kitchen watching her dad make dinner. Jake looks at her with her too-blue eyes, and her warm hugs, and her soft hair and hates himself for not wanting to kiss her. Before he leaves, he tries, leans forward meaning to catch her on the mouth, but he turns at the last second and pecks her on the cheek. It leaves him wishing he hadn't done it when he comes away to see the disappointment in her eyes.

By Valentine's Day, even Roxy notices how awkward it is between them. Jane doesn't hold his hand much anymore or come to his practices, and he's scared that she's pulling away from him like Dirk has. He asks her to meet him at his house after school because he's got something special he wants to show her. Her eyes are bright with excitement when she gets there bundled up in a thick coat and knitted boots, and he takes her hand, pulling her along behind him to the park. It's a longer walk than it should be, and the park looks sad and gray when they step across the car lot.

She follows him into the clearing, sitting beside him at one of the old tables, and he tells her this is where he and Dirk always used to go, this was their special place when they were kids. It's a public park, she says, and he knows it must look that way to someone who didn't grow up here, so he nods like he agrees but tells her that it's special to him anyway. She's special to him, too, and he wants to kiss her at that picnic table because it would be right. It would be right, and he wants her to be happy because she's wonderful, and he holds her gloved hands in his lap, watching her smile. But when he leans in all he sees is her eyes closing, and all he feels is nausea and the cold on his face, and all he hears is the wind in the pine needles, and he can't. It would be the easiest thing to do, tilt his head, keep leaning until she's happy, until he's happy too, until their lips touch as simply as it happens in the movies, but he freezes. The only way his body will allow him to lean is away, and after a moment of fighting it he does.

She feels it and opens her eyes, and they look at him now, asking him what she's done wrong, and his voice is dead. She hasn't done anything but good for him, and he doesn't have an explanation when her hand pulls out of his grip.

"Do you even like me, Jake?" she asks, and it rings out like a gunshot in the quiet.

"Of course I do! You're one of my best friends, and I - "

"You know what it is I'm asking."

The words he wants to say won't come, and he can only watch helplessly when she slides her legs out from under the table and stands. Her eyes are wet, but she's too proud to cry openly in front of him, and knowing it's his fault makes him sick.

"It's probably for the best if we don't speak to one another for a while."

"Jane, I'm sorry," he tries, but she stops him with a raised hand.

"It's - Just, please, Jake, give me some time, and don't talk to me," she says, and he means to ask her to stay, to ask where she's going, but she takes her phone from her pocket and calls her father, walking across the parking lot to sit down on the sidewalk facing the road. Until his car pulls up, Jake doesn't move a muscle, feels paralyzed with fear, disgust at himself, and regret, and wishes with all of his might that he had kissed her because then she'd be smiling, not crying, and he wouldn't have to watch his only other friend walk away from him.

Long after she's gone, he stays, not wanting to go home yet because then it'll really be done. The park has never looked so much like shit, and he's so cold he can't feel his fingers.

He feels his face pinching like he's going to cry, and stops it, taking out his phone instead to tell Dirk that he was right all those years ago: the park is stupid. The park is the stupidest thing in the world, but so is he because wanting things definitely hurts, no matter what he says. His head has started to pound, and he's bad at pressing the tiny keys on the phone, so he's sure the message he sends is barely legible. It doesn't matter, he thinks when he's pushing himself away from the bench. Dirk wouldn't reply until the day was so late it had become early again anyway, and he hoists himself up the rope bridge and onto the platform, scooting inside of the low roof over the opening of the slides. His back presses against the red plastic wall behind him, and all he can think is that he's screwed it all up.

The wind is the only sound, and it talks to the weather beaten playground, waits for it to creak and clink its response while he's huddling into himself for warmth, listening to it with closed eyes. It's all he hears for a long time, and it helps until it doesn't, and then he's just cold and not sure why he won't just go home because it's getting winter-dark, which is less comforting than summer-dark and unsafe. A car pulls into the lot, headlights passing through the gaps between the slides and the platform, and he hears the sounds of people talking over a muffled radio, and then a door slamming shut. The car drives away again, and after the rumbling bass has faded away up the road, he can hear footsteps, and he thinks he doesn't care who it is, won't look, until they're climbing the rope ladder and he sees Dirk. It just makes him mad when he walks over and sits against the wall opposite him.

"You can't be my friend if you can only manage an appearance when it suits your fancy, Dirk." He stays quiet, and he's wearing his stupid sunglasses.

"You needed me now, so I'm here."

"I needed you in the fourth grade, but you couldn't be bothered to work in a single blasted phone call for five years. I need you all the time. I need someone, and now I've got no one because I just pissed up the only other relationships I have. Roxy surely won't speak to me once she hears I've abused Jane this way."

"You've got me."

Jake laughs in his face. "I've got you, do I? Yes, indeed, old boy. I've got you. I've got you when I force you to come to me because you don't think about me anymore. You shamelessly gallivant with unsavory characters at, frankly, very scary hours, you ignore me in class - you ignore me when I'm standing right next you, for fuck's sake -, and you can't even be bothered to return a simple message until hours later if you return it at all. So, obviously, I've got you. No, fuck you, Strider, you thoughtless asshole. I don't have you; I haven't had you for years, and now I don't have anyone. I'm alone, and it's my fault even though all I wished was to return some of the kindnesses I was afforded, so I'm quite sure I'm not allowed to feel badly about it." His face is wet, his glasses are smudged, and his nose is running because he can't help himself from crying anymore. The words won't stop, but he thinks that's just fine because there's nothing else he can lose, and he's wanted to yell at Dirk for a very long time.

Dirk is looking straight at him, and Jake's trying to restrain himself from punching him in the face and smashing his glasses to unsalvageable pieces. "And you knew," he says, pulling away his own glasses and pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes. "I asked you what you thought, and you knew damn well, and you didn't bother to tell me."

"I told you that good will isn't enough."

He wrenches his hands away from his face and glares at Dirk, but all he sees is a muted blur of dark colors smeared into each other. "Ah, well, very good. You can go now, Dirk. If you're here to dole out cack-handed comfort and say 'I told you so,' when you didn't because you never say a word to me, you can go back to your sensational new chums and leave me alone again. I hate your guts for treating my grandmother and I like we're only a passing thought. Stop pretending like you care, and I won't make a bother about you anymore." More than he hates Dirk, he hates that he's crying in front of him and that his voice is cracking. "Your glasses are preposterous, and you should know that before you go, at least."

But Dirk doesn't answer, and even without his glasses, Jake can see him shifting, moving forward until he's kneeling between Jake's legs, hovering in front of him. It's probably because he's so cold, but he feels Dirk's heat, feels his hand shaking when he puts it on Jake's shoulder, knows exactly what he's doing when he leans in, and he doesn't stop it. His hand drops his own glasses beside him and peels Dirk's from his face like he's accepted it, and when Dirk's mouth is on his, warm, full, and hesitant, he shuts his eyes and thinks this feels like it was supposed to feel with Jane, but knows when it happens that it could only ever have felt this way with Dirk. It's just pressure, more in his chest than on his lips, and Dirk doesn't taste or smell like anything, but it's exhilarating anyway. His heart is wild and frantic inside him.

The fragile smack of Dirk's lips pulling away from his has him leaning in again, following before he can catch himself, and after he does, he doesn't move, doesn't think, but brings his knees in enough that Dirk can't get away.

"I'm sorry I left," he whispers, and Jake thinks it's still too loud. There are a million things he could say that would be better, probably answers he should want, but he only asks one thing.

"Will you tell me how your parents died?"

"Double suicide," he says without a pause. It wasn't the answer he was expecting, and Jake wants to ask how anyone could just leave Dirk behind without a thought, how young he was when it happened, and most of all why they would do that, but Dirk saves him the trouble. "My father had a terminal brain tumor. He was her singular priority."


"I don't care. Fuck them both. You'll never be alone again, Jake."

Jake says he's sorry, but he means it for things he doesn't want to keep talking about, so he wraps his arms around Dirk's back, and when Dirk does the same they silently agree not to move until the park is an out-of-focus room filled with night, and the stars outnumber all the words they've ever said. Dirk calls his friends to tell them where to pick him up and walks Jake home.

They don't speak on the way back, and at the door Jake almost says something that he's not sure he means, but after the kiss it's all he can think about, and Dirk tells Jake that he doesn't have to say it. So, he doesn't, which is easier, and at school the next day Dirk doesn't say it either, so it gets pushed back, and then no one ever says anything. But Jake can't help it some mornings when he wakes up with an uncomfortable heat between his legs and all he can think of when he slides his hand over his navel and into his pajama bottoms to touch himself is the warmth of Dirk's lips and his uneven voice making promises in Jake's ear.

Roxy still talks to him, but not like she did before, and she says Jane's not mad, but she doesn't want to see him. It still hurts, but Dirk is true to his word and keeps him close, bringing him along to another table at lunch and introducing him to a group of kids who Jake doesn't have anything in common with but who don't mind his presence. He takes his place back at Jake's practices and even comes to some of the official matches, so Jake starts coming along to his fencing classes to watch him. They don't go to Dirk's apartment anymore, though. The caretaker is always drunk, and it's an unclean trash heap, Dirk tells him, so they go to his house or the park instead.

When school ends, he's packing for England because his grandmother already bought the tickets. She tells him they won't have to go next year if he wants to stay, since Dirk is back, but he doesn't mind. Dirk calls him now, and it won't be so lonely. The summer is still gray and rainy, but they share a good night-good morning call each day when Dirk is just coming home from being out all night and Jake is just waking up, and it's the best part of his vacation.

When they get back home, he finds Dirk waiting for them with Dave at the airport, and when they hug he notices that he's as tall as Dirk is now. His grandmother lets him go home with them, and he gets to meet the new caretaker, a stout woman who smiles and shakes his hand when he gives it to her. He discovers that Dave is pressing charges against the old one for neglect, but when they're in Dirk's bedroom he pulls a bottle of alcohol from behind his T.V. and grins at Jake. He snuck it in before it was thrown out with the others, he says, and they wait until Dave and the new caretaker have gone to sleep before they take turns sipping at it. It tastes horrible, but it makes everything funny, and they don't have to drink very much at all before they're lying on the floor making crude gestures with Dirk's puppets and laughing until their sides hurt.

They collapse exhausted into Dirk's bed when the sun is coming up through the blinds, and before they fall asleep they share a dazed, awkward kiss with Jake's lips on Dirk's cheek and Dirk's on his chin because they're too woozy to aim right. If Dirk remembers in the morning, then he pretends he doesn't, so Jake does the same, and they hide the bottle before anyone else sees it.

Dave spends most of his time on the phone or his laptop, and it bothers Dirk. He doesn't take his eyes from the screen, barely manages to turn his head, when Dirk spits out an insincere goodbye to see if he's listening when they decide to go to the store for snacks. So, Dirk slams the door hard enough to rattle the front window when they leave, and a dog starts barking from inside another apartment.

In the eighth grade, he gets to be in more official matches with other schools, and Dirk's fencing form is so perfected that he begins competing in tournaments. Homework and sports have taken up all of their time, and neither of them goes to the anime club anymore. He isn't in Dirk's class, but he can still see that the teachers have started treating him differently, even the ones he offended in the last year. They act like Dirk is Dave.

Sometimes, when Jake is invited to one of Dirk's tournaments there are paparazzi. It's only a handful, but they're persistent and bombard Dirk with questions before his fight begins, questions about his brother and their relationship, why he doesn't live with him, if there's strain, and Jake wants to jump in and beat them off because it's none of their business, and if they want to know they should go ask Dave. It doesn't seem to bother Dirk as much as it does Jake, though. He says he's used to them after California, that all he did was dodge photographers when his brother bothered to show his face. So, Jake lets it go and tries to focus on the tournament which is not difficult because Dirk's as good and better at fencing as he ever was at any sport.

Dirk still won't stop hanging out with his older friends and claims they're part of an image he maintains - for himself or his brother, Jake can't tell -, but his new caretaker enforces a curfew, so he starts sneaking out of his window at midnight. He tells Jake not to wait up for a message because he rarely comes home until after school the next day. It scares him, but he's wary of jeopardizing their friendship when it's hanging on by such slim threads, so he holds back from telling him off.

In the middle of the year, Jane approaches him with Roxy at her side and says that she'd like it if he came to her house for her Christmas party, and he's so excited she's forgiven him that he grabs them both up into a hug. He says he missed her, and she says that she should have known better than to try to steal Jake's heart anyway but won't explain what she means when he asks. Dirk gives him a fist bump when he gives him the news, and says he can't wait.

For the first time in nearly a year, Roxy and Jane are both online when he turns his computer on that night, and he has a wonderfully long conversation with them both. Her Christmas party is just the four of them watching movies in their pajamas until dawn and eating cookies and cakes that her father made. He doesn't seem to hold a grudge against Jake, and even says it's good to see him around again, which Jake appreciates, and when he leaves to go to bed, Roxy makes everyone groan uncomfortably by commenting on how hot she thinks he is. Jane tries to stuff a bright red tree bauble in her mouth to get her to be quiet. It doesn't work out, but they all get a good laugh out of it.

He doesn't know how it happens, but - after the girls have retired to Jane's room - he finds himself lying on the couch with his face tucked against the back of Dirk's neck and an arm curled around his chest, and all he wants is to keep holding him there until Jake can forget that, when he wakes up, there are still going to be windows for Dirk to climb out of in the middle of the night.

Dirk is good enough, and wins often enough, that he gets to compete at a regional tournament, and he says he's not interested when Dave calls to say that he'll come down for it, but he's antsy and he talks a lot more than he would if he weren't excited. It makes Jake happy because Dirk says Dave's never been to one of his fights before, and Jake knows he will think Dirk is incredible. They don't hang out much during that time because Dirk is working hard, practicing as much as he can to be as good as possible for when his brother sees him. Until the night of the tournament, when Jake is sitting in the crowded stands with his grandmother holding a seat for Dave, he thinks maybe it'll be okay, but when the last round is over with no sign of him, and his grandmother is looking angry and upset, he knows it never will be.

Before they leave, he finds Dirk with sweat drenched hair and splotches of heat-red coloring his cheeks and tells him how sorry he is. Dirk shrugs, laughs ruefully, and says he never gave a shit in the first place. He's getting a ride home with his friends, so he tells Jake there's no need to stick around, but the emptiness in his eyes is more convincing than the words in his mouth, and Jake wants to stick around because he's afraid of leaving Dirk alone.

The drunken messages start coming at one in the morning, and he knows he should have. He can tell that Dirk's drunk because of how much he's talking and how little sense he's making, so he calls him, just to hear his voice and be sure he's okay. The phone call they share is brief, and loud, and Jake can hear rowdy screaming in the background that hurts his ears. Dirk says he's got that bottle of alcohol he hid away, and Jake should have a shot with him because he's going to go home and fire the caretaker and call Dave and tell him to fuck himself. Jake doesn't know what else to do, so he tells Dirk to come to his house and they can drink together, but after he hangs up he runs into his grandmother's bedroom and tells her that he needs help.

They don't have time to question the people he was with; they squeal away from Jake's house almost as soon as they pull up. Dirk is leaning against the door frame with his eyes closed, doesn't have a shirt or the bottle, and there's a red spotted bandage wrapped around his upper arm that makes Jake's breath catch. The first thing his grandmother does is drag him to the couch and lay him on his stomach with a trash can under his face, just in case, while she asks him questions about who he was with and if he's okay.

He's incoherent, but he laughs. "Yeah, got some rad new ink. Wanna see, Engl'sh?"

"Who would tattoo an underaged boy?" she asks him, and he shakes his head, hand pawing at his arm.

"Buddies o' mine did it 'n their garage. Check it out," he slurs, and pulls down on the bandage. It's a bleeding, crudely drawn face of a character from one of Dave's movies that looks like it was only half inked in. The rest of it looks like it was forcibly carved into Dirk's arm with something sharp, and Jake isn't sure what to do, but he panics, thinking of infections and scars. His grandma gasps and says she's going to call Dave, and she backs out of the room, telling Jake to make sure Dirk falls asleep on his stomach.

He brings a hand up like he's going to touch the tattoo, but he falters, and his fingers curl into his palm. "Why would you do something like this?"

"Because 'm jus' free fuckin' ad space anyway, right? Now, I look th' part," he laughs. "When I was in Cali, I only saw 'm when the son of a bitch dragged me to these shitty promo events to pose next to 'm like a goddamn prop." The laughing is horrible, and it makes Jake's insides twist. He's reaching forward to help Dirk pull his glasses off because he can't do it himself with his unsteady hands, and he's gotten the earpiece stuck in his hair. "Th' worst thing's that 'f I din' love 'm, I could be free, y'know. I could be happy 'cause I din' love someone who won't ever love me's much's I love them, but I loved 'm straight out th' gate. Din' even get a chance to ex'cute an evasive maneuver. That's how I know love's jus' problematic trash. 'Cause it never goes away, 'n all it does is hurt. 'f I had a brother who cared, I'd be okay, but now I jus' care too fuckin' much for someone I ain't even a secon' thought to, even though I'm so hella cool. All my friends're so cool 'n awesome, ever'body loves me, 'n he still doesn' care; It still ain't cool enough for 'm." He's talking into the bottom of the trash can, and Jake can hear his grandmother's stern voice from the kitchen.

"But...I care, Dirk. What if - Couldn't I be your brother?" Jake's eyes are wet. All he can smell is alcohol, and he's fumbling for words because his throat is tight, and he's never heard Dirk pour his heart out like this before.

Dirk makes the most pitiful noise, and Jake thinks he might be the one to puke because he's never heard him sound so weak. "Oh...God, no," he slurs, and Jake's heart breaks. "No, no, no, no, no." He rolls onto his side and is so tired-eyed when he looks up that Jake doesn't know if sleep will be enough to help it. Then, he puts a warm hand on Jake's face and says, "That would ruin heaven," and Jake can't stop his own hand from coming up to cover Dirk's.

When they wake up, their hands are still clasped, and Jake has a crick in his neck from sleeping sitting up. Dirk almost apologizes to them, but his grandmother tells him to shut up. She slaps him for the tattoo and makes him eat an enormous breakfast, and Jake doesn't see him hanging with his older friends anymore. He tells anyone who asks that the tattoo is an ironic joke, and when it heals it's mostly pink and white scars and broken black lines.

That Summer, they have to go back to England because his grandmother's dog - "You probably wouldn't remember Becquerel. You were just a baby when you last saw him." - is being kicked out of the kennel he was put up in when they moved, and she has to sign his release papers in person. The caretaker has to be the one to tell Dirk that Dave is flying him out to the coast for the summer so they can have a face to face talk because he isn't answering Dave's calls anymore.

Dirk and his caretaker follow them to the airport, and when he hugs Dirk goodbye he can't stop himself from kissing him on the cheek, hoping he doesn't stumble while Jake's too far away to catch him before he hits the ground; Jake understands he needs to now. "I'll call you every morning, English," he says, and he does. Every morning, he wakes up to Bec sleeping on his feet and his phone ringing on the pillow beside his head. Dirk's voice is deeper than it used to be, and sometimes he just says things so that Dirk will respond, and he can listen to it. When the rain ticks against the windows while Dirk's voice rumbles in his ear, he snuggles down into his blankets and lets himself fall asleep again for a little longer. His great aunts and uncles pick on him about his oblivious smiles, but it's not until one of them uses the word 'lovestruck' that he pays it any attention. Then, his eyes focus and he realizes he's been sitting with an open book in his lap reading the same sentence for ten minutes, wondering if Dirk is still sleeping and if he's dreaming.

The days run on, and eventually they're coming home again, but there's a new element to himself that he's afraid to face. When their plane lands, Dirk is waiting for him in the middle of the terminal, and he's gotten taller and bulkier. His hair has grown out, and his tan is nearly a sunburn from spending three months on a beach, and just looking at him makes Jake's heart skip a beat. Dirk's arm comes down around his shoulders, and he realizes how much he missed being close to him, within touching distance. Dirk squeezes them together and says, "Still alive," and Jake doesn't know which of them he means, but his voice is so much more tempting in person than over the phone that all he can think about is how much he wants to kiss him, not caring that the airport is teeming with people. It makes Jake's chest feel tight, so he asks how it went with Dave to distract himself. Dirk says he didn't care for the tattoo.

Roxy teaches Dirk a new trick on the computer that he wants to show Jake that first night home, and he's sitting in his computer chair letting Dirk lean over him. His arms are around Jake's neck, reaching down to the keyboard, and he thinks he might burst with the heat against his back, Dirk's voice in his ear, and the warm breath on his cheek. Almost against his will, it has him turning his head and kissing Dirk again.

It's soft, but it lingers, and when his lips finally pull away, he doesn't stutter when he says, "I missed you."

They both know exactly what he means by it, but Jake gives Dirk time to pretend like he's processing, and then he smiles like he's sad, throwing Jake for a loop. When he slowly leans back in, turning his head to pry Jake's mouth open with his own, maybe he's just an overeager kid with his heart running away in his chest, and maybe he's as perfect at this as anyone has ever been - he doesn't know -, but he wraps his tongue around Dirk's and closes his eyes, sliding over in his chair without breaking contact so Dirk can sit half beside him, half on top of him, and feels like this is all he needs in the world. He can taste Dirk's heartbeat in his mouth and his fingers clutching lightly in his hair, and they spend the rest of the night making out to the sound of constant clicking from the pullstring on ceiling fan.

The ninth grade is a year of caution and learning. Dave releases a new movie, and everything about him has suddenly become public interest, including Dirk, who is either treated as a best friend or a pariah by the rest of the student body. Photographers are more common now, and while they have a few classes together, they avoid each other at school in case someone starts to suspect. He sees Aranea in the halls again now that they're both in high school, and they exchange numbers. She invites him to hang out with her friends in the library during lunch and asks if he has any extracurriculars, so he tells her about wrestling. She looks disappointed but congratulates him and says he's welcome at the book club any time. Sometimes, he uses being with her as an excuse to stay away from Dirk in school, but when the day ends and they get back home, it's homework, movies, and kissing until they think that being careful is for the dogs and run after each other to the park.

They go so far off the trails that they don't think anyone will find them ever again, most especially not a camera, and they fall into each other until they're breathless and starry-eyed, waiting eagerly for the sky to fall. It takes a cloud of angry mosquitoes and evening birds singing for the red-violet dark to pull them from their dead leaf blanket, and Dirk will hold feather-like onto his hand until they get to the clearing. Then, it's a two foot space between them until they get to his house, where they can smell dinner cooking from the driveway.

Most days, Jake doesn't even care about the kissing, just wants to be as close to him as he can get, but on others Dirk will have the empty look in his eyes that found him drunk and bleeding at Jake's door the winter before, and it worries him. He hasn't seen Dirk smile in months, and Jake can't get him to speak.

They can't do the normal things that the rest of the kids their age do. Going out at all is impossible because of the journalists, and even if they aren't present, the idea of them is, and more overbearing than that is the harassment they know they'd get from people if the truth came out. If it's not to go to the park, they don't have much reason to want to leave Jake's bedroom anyway. Neither of them cares about showing off, and they think the park is forgotten enough for them to be careless until Jane and Roxy show up one day.

"You weren't answering your phones," Jane says, pulling up a basket of food, "and we wanted to have a picnic before the weather turns. I remembered it being said you two always come here, so we thought we would try." Roxy leans in to whisper that she can see them holding hands under the table, and they slide to opposite ends of the bench. She says neither she nor Jane will say anything.

Word gets out about where they go, somehow, and it's not just the journalists who come. People who live around start remembering that there's a park in the neighborhood, and almost overnight it's repopulated with joggers and families petitioning to replace the worn equipment and put in new tables, things that are safe for children. The park doesn't feel like a sanctuary after that, and they stop going.

Stories pulled from ninety-nine cent tabloids begin circulating. It's a constant stream of rude, untrue things like Dave disowning Dirk and sending him to Texas for sexual reformation. Rumors fly about him, and because there's always someone who cares, they fly about Jake, too, and the way that they're a pair. The ones who remember elementary rehash that day in the second grade - things that happened when Jake and Dirk were too young to know what sex was, violent accidents -, and the first time Jake has to deal with someone prodding him at the grocery store with questions about their relationship, he loses his temper and slugs the photographer in the jaw. As soon as it happens, he knows he's messed up. The word 'lawsuit' is thrown around, and he runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction. It distresses him so much that he calls Dirk, wondering if they'll be bothering his grandmother next, and then he's not sure what he'll do, but it probably won't stop at a simple punch. Dirk tells him that he'll take care of it, so he trusts him, but when Jake finds out that his idea of taking care of it is asking Roxy to pretend to be his girlfriend, his stomach bottoms out.

When he sees them holding hands together or sharing kisses between classes, he doesn't know if he feels worse knowing what it costs her or what it feels like having to watch it and pretend not to care. It's probably far less noble than he pretends when he asks if she really doesn't mind sacrificing her own chance at a personal relationship to help them out, but she waves him off and says, "Like I would really date any'a the losers in this hick town," nudging him and winking in a way that's supposed to make him feel better. He's grateful that the rumors stop, but the sight of them together makes his head swim, and he thinks he'd rather be sued.

For appearance's sake, Dirk has to spend more time doing things with her like going out together or letting her wear his clothes to lead people on. She says she thinks fencing is boring, but she has to go to all of his tournaments, so Jake tries to explain what's happening. She usually leaves before the match is over, telling Jake to wish Dirk luck for her.

Most of his conversations with Dirk start to happen on the phone, and it leaves Jake with a lot of free afternoons when he doesn't have practice, so he takes Aranea up on her offer to join the book club. They meet after school, and they're a lot more subdued than he is. He finds himself getting antsy while he's there, thoughts drifting without his permission, and he thinks of Dirk and Roxy alone, how good they look together, how there's no conflict or 'controversy' when they're seen holding each other close, and he feels like the walls are closing in on him, so his stays with the club are infrequent and usually short.

Instead of that, he'll often bundle up and decide to take Bec for a walk to distract himself. They go for short trips around the neighborhood because he's an old dog and doesn't need much exercise. One afternoon, he wanders past Dirk's old house. Before he realizes where his feet have taken him, he's passing a wooden fence covered in overgrown, green vines, and it's surreal to him that he can stop and see over the top of it now. There's a set of pale wooden patio furniture sitting in the middle of a neat little lawn and a metal wind chime strung with sea shells clinking lazily under the awning over the porch, and it's otherwise quiet and barren. He only looks for a second before he's being tugged forward by the leash again, and he rounds the edge of the fence to see the familiar two-story house faced with red brick.

It's not as impressive as it used to be. In fact, now he can see that it looks exactly like every other house on the street, only it's not. He doesn't get the chance to stop and take it in, but as he passes he wonders who sleeps now in the room that used to have samurai swords nailed to the wall.

His legs are tired when he gets home, but he still calls Dirk and tells him that he wants to come over. He says he'll get a ride to Jake's house instead, so he takes the time to shower and lay down on the couch. Thirty minutes later, Dirk is knocking on the door before letting himself in, and something is different when he's standing over Jake. He looks up and tries to find his eyes behind the dark glass of the shades, but there's nothing. "Care for a scrap?" he asks.

"Yes." Roxy's perfume is on him.

Jake stands and walks past, leading the way to his bedroom.

For a while, they do wrestle. It's not technical or practiced, just two boys grappling formlessly, struggling as hard as they can on a cluttered bedroom floor, and then Jake pins Dirk under him, hands pressing hard biceps against the carpet, knees tight to either side of him. They're both out of breath and damp around the collar, and Jake is sure he'll have a hard time trying to find where their glasses fell later, but for the moment he just wants to watch Dirk, take him all in, before he's closing the distance between them. Hands on either side of Dirk's face, they collide so fast their teeth click together, and Jake catches the taste of Roxy's chapstick.

He clumsily drags his hips against Dirk's, moving them together until they're both hard, and his breath is leaving in short gasps, but he tries keeping his voice down so that his grandmother doesn't hear them. There are a lot of uncertain hands going everywhere, but they all manage to feel like they've got the right idea, stroking, touching, rubbing, and with his touch Dirk asks permission. Gliding his fingers up underneath Jake's shorts until they're resting on his inner thigh, he stops and waits. Jake pulls back and catches the fear, however well disguised, in Dirk's eyes and nods. He feels fingers close around him, testing, and his breath stutters when they come away momentarily to slip his shorts down his thighs, but they come back, and then they circle him and slide.

He doesn't want to have to face Dirk while he does this, so Jake keeps kissing, biting at his lips, and brings his own hand down to slip under Dirk's shirt. His wrist is grabbed, and he opens his eyes to see Dirk shaking his head. "It's okay. Just you, now," he says, and Jake wants to protest, but there's firm pressure and motion again, and hot shivers are running through his whole body, making him tingle. His hips roll up into Dirk's grip, his head rolls down against his shoulder, and his eyes roll unseeingly to rest on a poster of a skull and crossbones that he's had since he was eleven. This is probably supposed to be special, but it just feels like fire, like he can't get close enough to Dirk, can't bridge the gap even with his body, so he doesn't care what this is - as long as it is - and as long as it keeps overwhelming him.

He's gnawing so hard on his lower lip that he thinks he'll bite it off when he releases jerkily into Dirk's hand, scraping his fingernails against the carpet and listening to his heart pound in his ears while Dirk rubs against him and finishes himself. He's scared, and there's a raw ache in his chest that he's vaguely aware has been there for a long time. A kiss is pressed to his neck, and he chokes out a sob that he doesn't expect, but that's as far as it goes. He doesn't want to talk about what they did or what they'll do.

"Do you ever want to run away?" he asks instead, "Have an honest to goodness real adventure?"

"More than anything," he says, and Jake knows he should get off because he's heavy, and Dirk probably wants to clean up because they're both gross, but he's reluctant to move and let the moment pass. He wants to stay there with his lips pressed to Dirk's wet temple until he forgets how complicated and different things are now. However Dirk feels, he doesn't try to get up either, and after Jake pulls up his shorts, he stays on top of Dirk and decides he'll care about the mess later because in one way or another he's exhausted, and staying is his only priority.

"Dirk, I think I lo-," Dirk's mouth covers his own, cutting him off, and when he backs up he tells Jake he doesn't have to say it. But this time Jake thinks he means it, which is why he wants to.

At last, they get to spend the summer together. Dirk doesn't pay for fencing classes, and he gets his learner's permit a week before Jake gets his and treats it like a real license. Jake doesn't care much for driving, but he'll go anywhere with Dirk because every time he does it's like perching on the ledge of a getaway, and he doesn't care where they end up as long as they're together. Dirk looks for excuses to get behind the wheel, and when he rolls the window down, smiles and lets the tension in his shoulders go, Jake can't take his eyes away. Often, he'll take out his caretaker's car without permission before she wakes up, and they ride out the day watching the clouds roll by overhead, trying to find new places to be. They go for ice cream or lunch, and sometimes they go to the edge of town and park the car, getting out to throw rocks at the city limits sign, but sometimes they just drive.

One of them might message Roxy or Jane, and Dirk will pick everyone up for a trip to the water park. The first time they go, Jane is embarrassed about being in a bathing suit in front of people and wants to keep her T-shirt over it, so Jake offers to do the same so that she doesn't feel alone, and then so does everyone else. By the end of the day, they've all got horrible tan lines, and they're full of the soda and sandwiches that Jane packed them for lunch. Roxy and Jane are laughing hysterically at Jake and Dirk, who are cannon-balling into a giant wade pool and splashing everyone resting around the edges, when they're asked to leave. They do, and they laugh all the way to the parking lot, sun heated cement burning the wet heels of their feet.

After Dirk drops the girls off at Jane's house, he takes Jake back to his apartment, and they fool around in Dirk's bed until the heat is too much. Then, they kick the covers away and lie under the ceiling fan while it does - at best - a shoddy job of cooling them off.

Whenever Jake tries to touch Dirk in kind, though, he's carefully denied or shrugged off with an excuse. He says he just wants to make Jake feel good, that it makes him feel good enough, so he doesn't press the issue, just takes Dirk's hand and holds it as tightly as he can. They never go beyond touching, but Jake thinks he wants to.

On nights too hot to fall asleep, they stay up talking about the future. Jake doesn't know what he wants to do, but neither does Dirk, and that seems okay. Everything seems okay until Dave calls. They're eating breakfast on the couch, and the caretaker comes in with a frown, holding her phone out to Dirk. She's been less and less pleased with him as time passed. When Dirk takes it, he doesn't even stop spooning cereal into his mouth, and his responses are closed-mouth hums of acknowledgment when Dave tells him to stop taking the car out without a licensed driver, that it's dangerous, that someone could find out, and it'd be bad press. Jake can hear him say, "Alright, cool. Then, it's settled. I'm late for a conference now, so I'll have to talk to you later, little man. Keep up the good grades," before he disconnects, and he wonders where the rest of the conversation went.

"Was that the first time he's called you?" he asks. Dirk doesn't answer him, just puts his bowl on the table and passes the phone back to her, standing and going into his room. When Jake comes in, he's settled at his computer with his headphones on, and he's ignoring him.

"I'm heading to Roxy's for a thing tonight. You can come if you're down." he says, shrugging Jake off when he puts a hand on his shoulder, and Jake isn't down because he knows what's going to happen there.

"Do you know you're not alone?" he asks. Dirk doesn't answer him and pretends not to be able to hear.

It takes Jake a few minutes to gather up his stuff and leave, then he tells the caretaker he needs a ride. His head hurts, and he's tired because he's never been fast enough to pull the bricks out of the wall keeping him from Dirk before it towers between them. Despite that, he regrets walking out as soon as his feet start moving and wishes he were less impulsive or hotheaded, more like the gentleman he pretends to be, because Dirk needs him and all he can do is be angry that he isn't fast enough.

Name dropping manages to get Dirk a job at a mechanic's garage a week before school starts, and he says he'd never have done it otherwise, but he needs the money. He won't say for what, and by the middle of their sophomore year Jake is tired of the pretending and always getting the run-around, watching the from the sidelines while strangers' malicious intentions tell him what he can and can't do. Dirk is not Dave, and he shouldn't have to live like he is to make Dave's life easier.

"I want to go to prom with you," he says. They're on Dirk's couch, and his eyes feel heavy like he's about to fall asleep. He might be, with Dirk's arm around him and his head leaning on Dirk's shoulder, but he can't stop thinking about how much he wants this. For who, he's not sure, but he wants to be able to live like he's not a prisoner of circumstance for just one night, whatever the consequences are. That would be enough, he thinks.

It takes a moment for Dirk to respond, then his arm tightens around Jake, his nose nuzzles in his hair, and he says, "Alright," and that's it. He and Roxy call it off at school, and Jake enjoys it just a little bit when she slaps him hard enough to knock his sunglasses askew in the middle of the hallway.

Jake waits until dinner time one evening to tell his grandmother that he's with Dirk and waits for her response, feeling like he's going to puke or maybe fall down because his legs are shaking so much, and he's never been so afraid of anything in his life. She gives him a confused look from in front of the stove and says she could swear he'd already told her. He shakes his head, not wanting to be hopeful if that means she's known all along, but not knowing how to proceed if it doesn't, and she wipes her hands on a towel and crosses the kitchen to wrap her arms around his shoulders. He's taller than she is now, so he has to lean down to let her do it, but he'll always feel like a little boy around her, and all he wants in that moment is her approval. His hands wind around her back, knowing she can feel him shake, and she coos at him, comfortingly stroking his scalp with her fingernails.

"I will always love you, Jake, and you should never be afraid of that not being true. For any reason, okay?"

"Okay, Gramma," he says with his face turned into her hair, still long as it always was but snowy white now, and if he holds onto her for too long, waiting with bated breath for it to be too good to be true and wondering if Dirk could ever have this with Dave, he doesn't notice, and she doesn't say anything. He's not sure if that's why, on prom night, he's too nervous to go through with it.

Dirk's there at seven looking cool and careless with his hair slicked back and just a suit jacket over his normal clothes, and Jake feels like he's over dressed in his blue rental tux. His caretaker let him have her car for the night, and when Jake climbs into the passenger's side and shuts the door, he asks if it would be okay if they didn't go. Thoughts of cameras and problems and no one being there to hold Dirk for as long as he wanted while he stood terrified, waiting for judgment to be passed in the middle of his kitchen, have him anxious, but Dirk shrugs, and that's how they wind up sitting in a warm leather booth under the heater at the back of the only pizzeria in town.

Jake drops the crust of the piece he's just finished off, head resting in his hand. "I can't believe I got on my best bib and tucker for pineapple pizza."

"Yo, pineapple pizza is the most incontestably valid reason for putting on a suit in the first place, possibly excluding covert cinematographic intelligence operations."

"Yes, well," he says, thinking of the wallet full of money Dirk pulled out to pay their bill, "I've been wondering, and I know you say it's supposed to be a surprise, but -"

"I'm saving up for a car," Dirk cuts him off. Jake's eyes widen, and then he's confused why Dirk would keep that a secret from him. "I was waiting until I had enough to be sure I could afford it before I said anything. Didn't want to get your hopes up, but I guess now seems as opportune a time as any.

"You didn't want to get my hopes up?"

"Yeah, you with all your adventurous escapism shit. I can imagine how you'd wander around until you fell down a well, daydreaming about all the avenues of possibility our own car would open up - pun not intended but unavoidable." He hands Jake a napkin with a smile. "You've got sauce on your face," and Jake's staring at him with raised eyebrows, but he distractedly takes it with one hand and reaches under the table to link their fingers with the other.

A rickety little car with white paint that's starting to chip off has been towed to sit in front of Dirk's apartment building before the school year ends. It doesn't run, but Dirk bought it with his own money, and no one can tell him how or what to do with it, so Jake is all too happy to get in beside him under the popped hood and spend the days fixing it up. He doesn't know much about cars at the start, but Dirk's learned some things from working at the garage, and his grandmother does, so they go to her for help when they can't figure out what else they need to do.

Rain comes in steamy sheets of gray on the days that it comes, and before they slam the hood and run inside to seek shelter they'll lean in, protected - shielded they think - from watchful eyes. The buzz over Dave's movie has long since died out, and they aren't as careful anymore, so when they grab each other with grease-black fingers and kiss so deeply Jake thinks he'll drown, he doesn't think anyone can see them. Jake pulls away from Dirk's soft mouth with hooded eyes, and they breathe one another's air, listening to the rain pelt down on the cement around them. It smells like oil, sweat, and metal.

Dirk's glasses are pushed up into his hair, and Jake likes the way the dark skin of his wrist looks against Dirk's cheek - pale and familiar - and he kisses the side of his full mouth again. "Please, Strider, don't push me away," he whispers, and doesn't mean it to sound as desperate as it does, but the feeling is so sincere that he has to handle it like it will break or it might break him. "I do l -," and again Dirk stops him before he can finish, grabbing him by the back of the neck and pulling him in again, and Jake wants to pin him down kicking and screaming and make him listen, but Dirk's tongue is hot and insistent in his mouth, crushing their lips together so hard his neck is being pushed back, begging Jake not to say it as much as he's begging Dirk to let him.

In the morning, there are thirteen missed calls from Dave on Dirk's cellphone, and a picture message. It's headed with "what the hell is this," and because Jake is lying beside him where they fell asleep on the floor, when Dirk opens it, he sees the blurry photograph of them kissing each other under the hood of the car. They only get a second to see it before Dave is calling again, but the second is enough for Jake's whole body to go cold. Dirk steps into the bathroom to talk to him, but Jake can hear the yelling from his spot against the footboard of the bed.

When he comes back in, he says Dave wants him to move back to California because people are claiming he's a homophobe who sent his little brother away out of shame, and his P.R. people are scrambling. Dirk promises he's not moving back, but he'll go just to get the press off Dave's back so that Dave will get off of his. Jake wants to hit something, mostly himself, but asks if Dirk wants him to stay and help pack.

"No, I've got shit there. This will be a very brief stay; I'm only taking Lil' Cal." He makes a gesture toward the puppet doll on the bed, and Jake would be more glad to finally have remembered its name if the situation weren't what it is.

"Is he angry about..?" he makes a vague gesture.

Dirk snorts and gives him a condescending look. "He only cares about it because it's disrupted his business model."

"Oh," he says, and there's nothing else he can say. "I suppose I'll be going, then." Dirk nods, not looking at him, and the caretaker is standing in the doorway with the scared, disappointed look in her eye of an adult who should have known better, so he doesn't think it's a good time to go for a kiss or even a hug. He gives Dirk's hand a squeeze, because that seems safe enough and he wants some kind of contact before he goes, then lets her usher him out of the room and into her car.

Dirk doesn't get back in time for school, and he hasn't been calling, so Jake doesn't know if he's decided to stay or not. It's common knowledge what he and Dirk are, he finds out. Strangers, people who don't live there, have no idea who the boy in the picture is, but his classmates do. Some of them expected it, most of them don't care or at the very least leave him alone about it, but there are the aggressive ones who try to corner him. He's too old and too hardened by the years of wrestling to be intimidated now, and he gets referred to the office more times than he's comfortable with as a junior for fights that he refuses to lose, even if they leave him sporting a few scrapes and bruises. The fighting's not so bad, though. It's the silent condescension of the people around him that makes him nervous.

When Dirk does get back, he's stiff, unresponsive, and exhausted looking, and he says he'll have to go to California more often to keep things calm. He has to leave for the holidays, for his birthday, and whatever else Dave needs him for, which isn't fair because those were always times when they could be together. He calls Jake when he's away, but it's not the same. Jake still hates that Dirk has to do damage control to make things easier for Dave, but the worst part is that, even though people know, and the tension is incredible enough to keep their hackles constantly raised and ready for a fight, they still have to keep a ten foot distance between them when people are looking. He doesn't want to do anything lewd; he just wants to hold Dirk's hand and bring back the missing parts of him that he left out on the coast.

The pressure about colleges and majors is more intense than it's ever been, and Jake is at Aranea's or Jane's house studying for the SATs almost constantly because he has no idea what he wants to be or what he wants to do, but he wants at least to do well on his tests. Neither Roxy nor Dirk try to study for them, and they still make nearly perfect scores, which has Jake disheartened when he gets his results back and he sees how mediocre they are. Dirk says it's not a big deal, that the SATs don't mean shit anyway, but tells Jake he'll help him study if he wants when he takes them again as a senior. He does want that, even just to be close to him because, since he came back, he's barely touched Jake for more than to hand him a pencil. Even a kiss feels strained and unwanted, and his whole body aches and shudders when he remembers this is what the fear that Dirk's leaving him behind feels like. The worst part is that he wouldn't blame him for it. There's a world of possibility open and waiting for Dirk, even if it's only because of his brother's success, and he could go to any college, any city, any country, and leave Jake behind without a second thought. It's not something he's ever been afraid of before, but now he can't stop thinking about it.

Late one night, when he knows it's deserted, he goes back to the park and lies out on the old platform watching the stars, wondering when it'll get torn down and replaced with something newer and brighter.

South Padre Island is a tiny sliver of land just off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico that can be driven to by crossing a long causeway. It's a party town, and there are beaches and drinks and the smell of salt on the wind when you get close is an ersatz freedom nigh irresistible in the early days of July. Roxy has a hotel room and alcohol and plans, and she wants them to come out to the island to watch fireworks go off, something she says they should do together as a rite of passage before they're seniors. He's not sure he wants to be stuck in the middle of a crowd of drunk teenagers, but she's right that things are passing. He can feel it - everything slipping by him in a jet stream - and he wishes he could slow it down for just a little while. So, Dirk picks him up in the early pink morning, in the car that he paid to have finished at a shop, and they throw a cooler full of food in the back seat and drive with the radio on until they hit the gulf.

It's dark when they can finally see the shoreline through the sparse buildings, and they haven't had signal for hours, so Jake wouldn't know if the girls have tried to call them. All of the little shops are closed, and there are people sitting on balconies or running through the streets with roman candles when Dirk pulls over into the empty car lot of a shop that looks like it was once someone's home and turns off the engine. Dirk's glasses are hanging from his shirt collar, and when they look at each other the light from the street lamp above them flickering through the windshield makes Dirk's eyes look orange.

"Level with me. Do you have any real desire to go to this party?"

"Not at all."

"Then, stay here with me instead."

He does, and whatever the party was like, whether or not the fireworks were impressive, he never finds out. Sitting in Dirk's car with the radio turned down low, far enough away from home that he can pretend they won't ever have to go back, is all he wants. The seat belt cuts into his shoulder when he leans over the armrest to kiss Dirk, but he doesn't care because, for the first time in a long time, he's sure that Dirk wants him, too. When his hand rubs down the hard lines of Dirk's chest and under his waistband, he feels him tense up, but he's not pushed off, and he wonders if, maybe, Dirk is pretending he doesn't have to go back either.

Before the school year starts, his grandmother apologizes, saying she's only managed to save money enough for a community college, but he doesn't need an apology. His grades aren't good enough for much else, and he doesn't know what he wants to do anyway, which makes the year awkward. Everyone else seems to know what they're going to major in, where they'll go to school, or where they'll travel on their year off, and he's just caught in the tide. Jane suggests archeology, citing his love for Indiana Jones and skeletons, but he's not sure the archeology is the part of Indiana Jones that he likes. Dirk says he might want to do something with music, but he's got no real direction and can't offer Jake any help. So, he spends the year studying for tests and floundering, staring out the windows, looking for something beyond the skyline.

In December, when Dirk is flying out to California to spend his birthday with Dave, the halls are bustling with people who are already gone, and they feel cold and empty. Jake calls him on the night of his party while he's in the kitchen with his grandma, helping her make a pumpkin pie for when he gets back. Flour spills have ruined his clothes, and he's regretting not wearing an apron like she told him.

"You're making me a pie?" Dirk asks. There are sounds of a party going on behind him, people chattering and music, and Jake can't help but be pleased that he stepped away from it all just to talk to him.

"Well, I know it's not a big, Hollywood shindig or some such, but it was what I could do myself." His grandmother gives him a thumbs up and sets the temperature on the oven. "We always celebrated your birthday together. It seemed criminal to break tradition."

"It's perfect. Don't let it cool off; I'll be home soon."

"Right, then. I -" he stops before he finishes, knowing Dirk would just hang up on him before he got to say it anyway. "I miss you, and I'll see you when you get here. Enjoy the festivities."

"Night." He hangs up and hoists himself onto the counter to watch her put on the finishing touches, deciding he'll tell Dirk when he gets home, and if he doesn't want to listen, he'll beat it into him.

The sound of a car door slamming wakes him early Sunday morning two days later, and when he lifts himself out of bed to answer the door, Dirk is the last person he expects to see standing on the threshold. The cold air raises goosebumps on his bare chest, and he can see that Dirk has bad dark circles under his eyes. His glasses are in his hand, and he's pushing at his temple like he's got a headache. Jake's mouth drops open when he notices the gleaming black sports car parked in his drive, crossing his arms to keep himself warm. "Is that Dave's?" The tires are covered in dust, and the engine is clicking as it cools down.

"He won't miss it," he says, and puts his arms around Jake's shoulders.

"What are you doing here? Is everything quite -"

"Everything's fine, now," he says, placing a quick kiss to his forehead. There's a shuffle, and Jake moves aside to let him pass. "I'm pretty exhausted. Mind if we eat later?" Jake shakes his head and follows after Dirk into his room, watching him strip his shirt and shoes and collapse onto the unmade bed. It surprises him when he climbs in after and pulls the blankets up to feel Dirk's arms sliding around his waist and pulling him back against his chest, but he doesn't comment because he doesn't want to ruin it. Though he's not tired, he stays in the bed with him until it's past noon, and then hunger finally has him slipping out of Dirk's grasp to sneak into the living room. His grandmother is sitting on the couch, pointing out the door to the car with a raised eyebrow, and all he can do is shrug because he has no idea what happened either.

To keep from disturbing him, he doesn't bother going back in his room to get dressed, and the next time he hears his voice, it's after ten o'clock, and he's shouting. He creeps down the hall to hear a heated conversation, and when he pushes the door open, Dirk is sitting on the bed, phone held to his ear. Dave's voice is loud enough that Jake can hear it from across the room.

"...without telling anyone. Just what the hell were you thinking?"

"Didn't think you'd notice my absence what with all the awesome entertainment and camera crews holding your attention."

"That's bullshit. What the hell is wrong with you? I thought this was what you wanted."

"I know you won't understand why this is enough of a reason, but someone was waiting for me to come home, so I stole a car and drove all night to be here because that's what you're supposed to do. Get me?"

The other line goes dead for a moment, "Everything I ever did, I did for you."

"No, you didn't. You did it for you, Dave. And that's great: You found your dream. You made it happen. It's just too bad you forgot someone in your family was still alive before you went chasing after it."

"God damn it, Dirk, that's not fair. Listen to me."

"Don't worry, bro, you won't have to cover up any scandals to get your ride back. I will personally park it in beside your other three by the end of the week." He disconnects the call and shouts, throwing the phone so hard that the battery explodes from the back of it when it hits the wall, and then he shoves his hands in his hair and leans on his knees. It startles Jake into jumping, and then he's kneeling beside him in the bed.

"Are you alright?" The words are barely out of his mouth when Dirk is rising from the bed and crossing the room to get to the door, but Jake isn't having it this time. Faster than Dirk can leave, he's got him by the hem of his shirt, jerking him back, and when Dirk turns around, he's got a fist balled and ready to strike. It connects with Jake's jaw, and he reflexively brings a knee up into Dirk's stomach. They go tumbling to the floor, throwing punches and elbows, trying as hard as they can to hurt each other as much as possible. When Jake has Dirk slouched against the wall between his legs, and Dirk's got him by the collar, it stops, and they're panting, bruised and bloodied. "I want to be there for you, you damn imbecile. Why will you never listen to me?" he snaps. His vision is swimming, and he aches all over.

"Because if it weren't for you, I could be happy. I could be free." Dirk's teeth are grit, and his nose is bleeding.

"No, you damn well couldn't. Don't fuck around," he says, and though he's convicted, Dirk's words cut him to the bone. His hand releases Jake's shirt, and he presses it hard to the side of his head.

"When I'm with you, I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You're too good, and I know you'll leave because I love you so much, and that's how it goes. I love things, and they leave. I can't be with you. It's not safe, and I don't want you to be there for me because I know how it's going to feel when you aren't anymore."

Jake covers his face with his arm because he can't hold it in anymore, and he doesn't want to look as broken down as he feels. He gets it now. "I'm not Dave, Dirk. I'm not your parents," he quavers, but part of him wishes he were so that he could fix this, fix him, this boy he loves so much.

Dirk might be crying, too, but he can't see him, and then he hears him pleading, raspy, exhausted, and hopeless. "You have to keep me. You have to, and it's not that you don't have a choice. It's that I don't have one."

Jake laughs, but it sounds more like a whine. "If you want me to keep you, then stop running away, and allow me to," he says, and brings his arm away to put one on either side of Dirk's head and glare at him. "You're the one who's always leaving me behind." Dirk yanks his head forward and kisses him so hard he thinks he'll bruise, and when he pulls back struggling for breath, he says, "I love you. I love you, confound it. You never want to listen to anyone else, but I've already said it now, so just believe me."

"I do," he says, "which is why it scares me."

"You weren't scared of me when we were schoolfellows." There's a disused fencing foil hidden where Dirk shoved it in his closet after he quit going, and a skateboard that he hasn't used in years is likely tucked in close beside it, and Jake thinks about both of them, of all the things they've done, the one thing they haven't, and he wants it. He knows that he wants it, and his fingers brush through Dirk's yellow hair before he licks his lips and brushes them over Dirk's chin, kissing him so lightly there might be a breath caught between them.

Dirk doesn't respond, but his hands come up to rest gingerly on Jake's chest, and he looks questioningly, imploringly at him, brows drawn before Jake nods. Standing slowly on legs that suddenly feel like they've got gelatin bones, he pulls Dirk to his feet and walks him to the bed, sitting on the edge as a jumble of eagerness and nerves, and then he's being lowered onto his back with Dirk between his legs, lips whispering along the soft column of his neck and nose pressed into the hollow under his ear. He tries not to be afraid that, when this is over, Dirk will run away again, but he trusts him.

Sex isn't what he'd imagined it to be. In his head, it was easy, but doing it has him feeling things that run so much deeper than he'd thought himself capable of feeling them. The physical pleasure doesn't match the emotional, and the closeness makes his head spin, makes him cling to Dirk as hard as he can, as hard as Dirk clings to him in kind, because he honestly feels like they might be the same person when Dirk is moving inside him, careful and reverent. He never thought he could be so close to another human being, could feel like he and Dirk are linked in thought and deed, together, moving like parts of a whole even if it's nervous and unpracticed. When it's over, he feels different. It's a strange, good feeling that he doesn't want to have to live without again, like part of him is Dirk's, and he's convinced now that people have sex not to feel good, but to feel inseparable. Everyone else has it all wrong, but he and Dirk are right.

He watches Dirk beside him, wanting to speak, but still unable to get enough air and reluctant to break the early morning silence. He'll have to get up for class soon, eventually, so he does it anyway, and his voice isn't as loud as he'd been expecting it to be.

"You're...we're going to be okay now," he ventures. "It's all bully again, isn't it?"

"No, it's not," Dirk says, but doesn't make a move. "I'm still fucking terrified." Jake sympathizes.

They lie quietly, barely breathing, when he asks, "What do you want to do? In the future, I mean."

Dirk shrugs. "Hell, I don't know."

"Let's leave, then."

He tenses. "There's still half a semester remaining, English."

"I know, but I meant after. When we graduate, let's escape. These same dalliances with the same old people in this town are getting tiresome. I want to do something new. I want to have an adventure with you, and we can go by Shanks' pony if we have to."

"Will you still be the princess if I say yes?"

He slides across the sheets to press their bodies together, slips an arm under Dirk's, and tucks his head under his chin. "Say yes, and we'll see, eh?"


"Then, I'll be a brave explorer princess if you'll cut down the jungle weeds with your sword."

Dirk is still trying not to tremble against him, but it's apparent in his voice when he says, "I love you," and Jake's fingers rub circles in his warm back under the blanket. They talk about getting up to watch the sun rise, but neither of them tries to leave the bed, and he feels too tired for sleep, so he stays awake and listens to Dirk breathing before he has to go. Later, they'll talk about it, but he just wants to feel this moment while it's his.

He'll keep Dirk and keep him always this close for as long as he can.

No one is quite sure when Roxy Lalonde is announced as the class valedictorian if it's because she's truly that smart, or because she messed with the school's grading system and set herself up that way. Jake knows that it's because she's really that smart but wants everyone to think it's because she messed with the system, so he doesn't say a word. Not that he could have. Roxy's speech is honest and unashamed to say the least, and when she concludes it with, "Let's just get out of here and party the way we earned italready," there's a round of loud applause from the students, and some stiff laughter from the teachers. Dirk accepts his diploma wearing his shades even though they're against the ceremony's dress code, and when the presenter sticks out his hand to shake with him, he rears back and slaps their palms together as hard as he can, leaving the man fanning it in the air painfully.

The mortarboards are tossed into the air, and they don't stick around to see where theirs fall or to pick them up. They find each other in the scrambling crowd and make a dash for the parking lot, where they've got two full bags and a box that won't close stuffed in the backseat of Dirk's car beside his old puppet doll - still holding itself together - because they're in a rush. Roxy and Jane each got long goodbyes, and his grandmother got a promise to call her as soon as they've stopped somewhere, and for everyone else they decided to leave a note.

Dirk pulls them out of the parking lot, aiming a smile over at him, and drives as fast as he can to the park. They get there while it's still deserted and don't bother to turn the car off when they jump out and make a beeline for the platform, stopping in front of the nearest slide. Jake pulls out a paring knife he stole from his kitchen, and they carve words into the dim red plastic, knowing it won't make a difference because the platform only has so much longer before it's replaced.

Thank you for some things, and fuck you for everything else.

Have a great life and all that, and wish us luck if you want, but don't look for us here anymore.

We'll be gone by morning, and if you were smart you would be, too,

but if you decide to stay, it'll probably still work out for you.

D.S. & J.E.

The air is wet and full of rumbling clouds, and it'll be raining soon, but for a moment they stop to admire their handiwork. Jake traces his fingers over the letters and takes the chance to look around him, remembering all the adventures they've shared here. Then, they hear someone pulling into the lot and panic, sprinting back to their car, slamming the doors, and rolling out onto the street. They drive past his old red brick house, and Jake waves, but Dirk keeps looking ahead of them and reaches down to thread their fingers together, squeezing him tightly.

In the morning, they'd be wherever the road would take them, but now, with the windows rolled down to let the balmy evening breeze hit his neck and the crickets chirping quietly as the tires crunch through gravel, he thinks of that first spring when a soaking wet boy with eagle eyes took his hand and pulled him down an old dirt trail to look for temple treasures. He can't imagine what will happen after tonight, but he can smell the dying honeysuckle on the air as they drive away, and he doesn't care. The world is red and lavender and navy, the setting sun feels like an old friend, and he knows that this will be his greatest adventure.