Author's Note: Hoo boy, this one took me a bit, but here it is. Not much to say other than this chapter is very personal to me in a lot of ways, and it was difficult for me to write without getting emotional. Also have some technical issues-is there a way to link a small part of the text to a song? It's important to this chapter as a whole. Any help would be appreciated! Please enjoy.





"Say it."

"Fuck you."

"Say it!"

"OKAY! Okay, uncle. Now get off me."

Jake, smiling triumphantly, rolled off his scrum partner. He wiped his brow, breathing heavily. It had been a much-needed way to blow off steam, and Dirk had been happy to oblige. They were outside, in Jake's backyard, under a gigantic, ancient oak tree. Jake looked up at its branches, content, then turned to his blonde compatriot.

"Been a spell since I bested you in fisticuffs, eh, Strider?"

Dirk propped himself up on his elbows, chest heaving. He reached for his hat, which had been lost to the lawn after Jake's initial charge, and returned it to its proper place on his head.

"Looks like I'll have to step up my game, huh?" he replied, absently brushing grass clippings from his shirt. There was a brief moment of silence, where the pair of them took in the summer heat. Birds chirped merrily in the trees, and the wind rustled their leaves.

Jake felt clear-headed for once; his date with Jane had been a couple weeks ago, and he hadn't spent much time outside the house since then. It was good to spend some time with his bro for a change. Dirk had been busy with the museum tours; they always increased over the summer, but he had managed to get a day off. Jake couldn't remember the last time they'd been able to spend a day like this together. College ate up a lot of his time.

"So, how'd things go with Jane?"

The question set Jake back on his heels. Dirk had never brought up the date before, and he wondered why he would ask now.

"It was a befuddling experience, to say the least," Jake shrugged. He wasn't sure he could accurately describe the mixture of confusion and relief he'd felt. "Jane has turned over a new leaf; she's become a fine young lady."

"Mm," was all Dirk said for a moment. Jake watched his face for some sort of reaction, or hint as to why he was bringing this up, but his stoic expression begat nothing.

Jake was about to ask him to elaborate when he heard a rustle coming from the front yard. Moments later, Dave appeared. His hands were in his pockets, his shades gleaming brightly in the sun.

"What a surprise! Hello there, Dave!" Jake greeted him jovially. Dave nodded to him, but his face was turned towards Dirk.

"Bro, I need to talk to you," he said simply.

Jake looked at Dirk, brow furrowed. Normally, Dave was not so blunt. He genuinely enjoyed Dave's company when he had the chance. Something must have been weighing on his mind.

Dirk's face was impassive. "Sure," he said. "'Scuse me, Jake." He hoisted himself upright, brushing off any lingering grass clippings. His tone was unusually flat. Cold, even.

As Dave and Dirk headed to Dirk's house, Jake also lifted himself to his feet. Curiosity was eating at him, much like at Jane's, but this was something different. Something was wrong.

Jake leaned against the short chain link fence, trying to appear casual. Dirk's windows were open to let in fresh air; he would hear if anything happened.

"What do you want, Dave?" he heard Dirk ask. Jake couldn't see them; they must have been in a room closer to the street. He could hear Dirk trying to sound calm, but it resonated as anything but.

"Did you get my letter?" Dave asked. Jake thought he heard… fear? Was Dave nervous about something?



"Well what? What do you want me to say, Dave?"

"Fuck if I know, I said what I needed to say in the letter."

Jake could almost hear their blood pressure increasing from his post at the fence; what on Earth was the problem?

"Do you expect me to be okay with this? Is that it? Just like that?"

"You've known about this for a long fucking time, bro. I tried to send you emails, messages, shit, I even sent you a goddamn letter, and you haven't said a fucking word to me."

"Yeah. You wanna know why? Because you were too much of a fucking pussy to just say it to my face."

"Fuck you! That's not what it was about."

"That is exactly what this is about. Or, do you think I'd just be okay with the fact that you're moving away? So you can go and ruin your life in Timbuktu with this girl?"

"You know Rose, you know that she's—"

"I know that she's going to fucking suck the life out of you, Dave. That's what she does. She's going to use you until there's nothing left."

"No, that's a fucking lie and you know it!"

"Oh, is it? Is it really?"

"Yeah it goddamn is! You know what?"

"What? Fucking what, Dave?"

"You're just a jealous prick. A whiny fucking—"

There was a pointed smack, like that of skin against skin, and a sharp cry. Jake heard a clatter and a thud.

"I'm not a little kid anymore, bro! What the fuck is your problem? You want me to just live across town from you, so you can check up on me at your fucking convenience, to make sure I grow up just like you, or something? All fucking proud of me, your little clone! Goddamn it, bro!"

"You stupid little shit!" Dirk yelled. "You see what she's done to you, Dave? This is what I'm fucking talking about! Who was the one that's always been there for you? Who took you to school every day, got your ass in college? I thought I fucking raised you better than this. You arrogant little prick! Fine then, see what the fuck I care when y—!"

Further argument was cut off as a struggle broke out. Dave and Dirk's individual yelling and screaming mixed together in the air. Jake heard glass shattering, another clatter, and what he thought was a chair overturning. A door slammed, and Jake watched as Dave jumped in his car. He could only see the back of him, but he saw him holding his shades, which appeared to be broken. There was a screech as he peeled out of the driveway and punched the gas, leaving the street far behind.

Moments later, Dirk appeared on the front porch, the door wide open. Jake couldn't see his face, but his hands were shaking at his sides.

Jake didn't know what to do. He stood, mute for a moment, gripping the chain link so hard that it dug into his palms. His heart ached for his friend—no, both of them were his friends. So, the least he could do was try to be there for Dirk, since Dave apparently couldn't face him.

He ducked inside as inconspicuously as possible, though he was sure Dirk knew he'd been watching. Gathering up a first aid kit from one of the bathrooms, Jake met Dirk, still immobile, on the porch.

Dirk was looking up towards the trees, he thought. He said nothing as Jake stood at his side, trying to figure out what he was looking at. Behind those shades, though, Dirk was unreadable. Upon closer inspection, it appeared that one lens of the trademark accessory was broken. As curious as Jake was, he felt it was not in good taste nor a necessity to explore. His friend was hurting, and the least he could do was try to patch him up.

"Hey, mate," Jake said softly. "Let's get you put together, shall we?"

Dirk did not reply for a moment, he just stared blankly ahead.

He did, however, turn so that Jake could attend his wounds. Dirk had a cut above one eye, a bruise on his cheek which extended up and behind his shades, and a few scratches on his neck. Jake could only imagine what Dave must look like, but the Strider brothers generally didn't get so physically violent with each other. Not once had Jake ever seen or heard them at each other's throats like this.

As gently as he could, Jake dabbed alcohol onto the cut with a cotton ball. Dirk's lips twitched, but were otherwise a simple line, devoid of feeling. He wondered what was going through his head. It was demanding of Jake's patience, not to ask. Jake respected Dirk too much to inquire directly what had been going on between the two of them, but he knew that Rose was certainly involved.

It was difficult for Jake not to look perturbed as he continued his work on Dirk's sullied face. His mind buzzed incessantly, trying to figure out a non-invasive question, or some humorous remark to ease Dirk's surely troubled psyche.

"He's gone."

"Yeah, he is." The words sounded so hollow, empty, but Jake couldn't find the right words to say.

"I guess…" Dirk paused and stepped back from Jake, as he finished mending him. The blonde stared down at the cement of the porch. He lifted his hands to his face, relinquishing the cracked and dirty lenses. "It's my fault."

"Nonsense, my good man!" Jake answered as cordially as he could. He gave the top of his spiky blonde hair a hopeful smile, not daring to invade his space any more than was required.

"No, Jake. He was absolutely right." Dirk's voice was barely more than a whisper. "I just thought…"

"Thought what?" Jake reached to put a hand on his shoulder, but his hand froze in midair, unsure.

Dirk saved him the trouble by turning back to the sky, eyes up.

Jake sucked in a breath. Maybe it was the sun setting, but he thought he saw a tangerine color to Dirk's eyes. His reaction seemed to break Dirk of whatever train of thought he'd been carrying; it was as though he'd forgotten Jake was there.

"Oh, sorry… I guess you've never got a good look at my freaky orange peepers," Dirk laughed softly, barely more than a breath. He gave the dark-haired boy a wry smile.

"That's hardly the point, here, now, is it, chap?" Jake reminded him. For now, he would have to stow away the flood of questions he had about Dirk's fascinating ocular devices. Instead, Jake put on a serious face. "Let's hear it, now. Thought what?" Maybe by talking about it, Dirk could calm down, and they could get back to their usual banter. "Perhaps a bit of the old chatterbox will help clear the air?" he added lightly.

Dirk exhaled slowly through his nose and plopped down on the stoop. He patted the generous space beside him.

"I just thought that I could say something to make him stay," Dirk uttered quietly. Bitterness pervaded his speech.

"Come now, friend, he couldn't just le—"

"Nothing of what I said was true," Dirk cut him off, balling his fists. "I was stupid. Somehow, I thought if I… if I shed Rose in a bad light, I could get Dave to stick around."

"That's… that's what it was?" Jake asked, shocked. Dirk looked down at his knees, shaking his head and chuckling, not meeting Jake's gaze.

"Seems I wasn't ready for my little bro to grow up just yet, huh?"

Suddenly, Jake realized what it really meant to have a little brother. He couldn't imagine it, living his whole life like that, raising a miniature version of his almost-self. Dirk had, no doubt, spent every minute of every day, trying to raise Dave right, to bring out the best in him. He could bet that Dave once regarded Dirk as not only his brother, but his friend, his mentor, his… hero.

"I just feel like… somehow, I've failed. Like it's my fault, like I didn't do enough to prepare him for the real world. What kind of brother would that make me, if he gets hurt somehow?" Dirk's voice shook, and his friend saw the blonde's throat bob.

Jake's heart ached as though Dirk himself had been squeezing it.

"Dirk—" Jake began, but again he was cut off.

"It's okay, Jake. I don't expect you to say anything."

"Consarn it, Strider, would you shut it?" Jake snapped, his English-bred tongue resurfacing. Dirk stared at him in mild alarm.

"Dirk, he's still your bro! It's hardly the end of the world," Jake smiled reassuringly. "This is… this is just another grand adventure in the epic saga of the Striders."

Dirk's brows furrowed in confusion. Jake mentally kicked himself for his continual abuse of vague analogies.

"What I mean is, you two will always remain close. He's on to a new page, but you'll both share the same chapters. And botching it up a bit along the way is just one part of it. It's part of the grand adventure we call life, mate. Everyone has to grow up, Dirk, but it doesn't mean they grow away."

"That's the stupidest analogy I've ever heard," Dirk snorted, though Jake saw the white of a smile as the blonde clapped his forehead. "Except for that last part, that wasn't so bad."

"There's that chum of mine!" Jake crowed, slugging his shoulder. The two of them shared a good chuckle as the sun set below the houses across the street. He hopped off the porch to his feet, extending his arms outward on either side. "Hey, I've got an idea!"

Dirk gave him a shrewd look, chin in hand. "I shudder to think what's turning in that mess of gears called your brain."

"Oh, pish posh," Jake waved. "Why don't you come bunk with me? I've got a spare room, and maybe a change of scenery wi—"

Dirk raised a hand to silence him.

"Nah, stay here tonight. I could use the company."

Jake beamed. "That would be capital!"

"'Sides, you haven't ever seen the inside of my house, have you?"

Dirk's eyes settled on him. Jake wasn't sure why, but it gave him a good feeling.

"What a sodding lousy neighbor you are, D!" Jake mocked him. "I bloody well haven't."

"All right, c'mon in and let me show you the place."

So it was. Dirk pushed the key into the lock, wiggled it a bit, (explaining that it needed some elbow grease to unbolt), and opened the door. The foyer housed a decorative plant, a hanging lamp, and a few wall accents, including what appeared to Jake as 'artwork' done by Dave, age 13, but to him it looked like what could only be described as 'penis Ouija.'

Dirk waved lazily behind him, beckoning Jake forward. "Never mind that, Dave got into this ironic artistic battle with the Vantas' kid, Karson, down the street. They couldn't agree on what to draw. Had some pretty humorous results, but it's not important. Here, down this hall is the kitchen."

Jake chuckled and dutifully followed. He couldn't believe he was finally exploring his best bro's pad. It wasn't really anything to be excited about, he knew, but now he could at least put to rest any nagging or half-baked presumptions he once had. His beryl orbs roamed every inch of the white walls, the polished, dark wood flooring, and he caught a glimpse of one of the bathrooms on the way there. Everything was so… clean. If he hadn't known better, Jake would have thought the house was being shown for sale, rather than the home of a bachelor.

The kitchen was quite spacious. Jake let out a low whistle as they entered. If he had to guess, it must have taken up most of the ground floor, except for maybe the living room, which he hadn't yet seen. The cabinets were all frosted glass, with overhead lights within. The soft glow emitted by them was comforting. There was a kitchen island, fridge, stove, dishwasher, microwave, toaster, and a coffeemaker. All the appliances were black, in contrast with the white countertops and other surfaces. Upon closer inspection, Jake saw colorful magnets in the shapes of the alphabet on the fridge, which currently were tacking up Dirk's work schedule, a few hastily scrawled notes, and Dave's letter. Jake's gut twisted as his eyes fell on it, but now was not the time to dwell on matters that didn't directly concern him.

"It's a kitchen," Dirk shrugged, as if everyone had a kitchen like that. "I like to cook. Oh, and over here's the dining room, hang on."

A considerably smaller, cozier space housed the dining room. The table was also wood, painted black. Dirk hurriedly stood one of the chairs, which was knocked over, upright. Small shining, tinted shards were on the floor too, which he bent to scoop up. This must have been where he and Dave had their altercation. Jake imagined it had started in the kitchen, where Dirk had his younger brother's letter tacked up. It was not a pretty scene to visualize. He unconsciously bit his lower lip, but Dirk seemed not to notice, or maybe he just didn't care. With an easy bump, Dirk straightened the table as well.

On the far wall of the dining room hung more photos; one of them was of Dirk and Dave, smiling, but the glass was cracked. There was also a large bay window, curtains drawn aside with a pile of small cushions at the center. One of them had an odd lumpiness to it, as though used regularly. The window overlooked the yard, where there was a tree with a tire swing.

"Wow, Dirk, I never knew you kept up a shipshape place," Jake remarked, hands on his hips, nodding in approval. Dirk shrugged.

"I can't think straight if my surroundings aren't in order. C'mon, I'll show you the living room."

They turned a corner, back towards Jake's house, passing what looked like a game room; Jake saw a corner of a pool and foosball table, and a dartboard, and trekked upstairs. He was greeted by the couch and entertainment system he could see from his bedroom window. This time, though, he could see a tall shelf full of DVDs and CDs. Sweet Bro and Hell Jeff caught his eye. A large, plush beanbag dominated one side of the living room. It was currently occupied by a rainbow of the slightly creepy puppets Dirk kept lying around. A camcorder was among them.

"Sorry, I've been working on a side project," Dirk mumbled, stowing the camcorder on the shelf and tossing the smuppets unceremoniously into a basket near the TV. Jake thought he saw Dirk's face turn a little pink.

The room was much longer than what Jake could see from his room; the end of it stretched clear to the other side of the house. The remaining space of it held another small table with chairs, and a display of poker chips perched on top. Two doors were on either side of the table area. Dirk headed for the one on the left, hands in his pockets.

Jake expected an ironic sea of smuppets, apple juice, and Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff merchandise, neatly stacked and categorized like the rest of the house.

He was only partially right.

While spacious, Dirk's room was a mess. Clothes lay haphazardly everywhere, on the bed, the floor, and even over the wheeled desk chair in front of his computer. The desk was occupied by a drawing tablet, keyboard, and a bottle of apple juice. The computer itself was an Alienware brand. Perched on top of the monitor was a was a window behind the desk.

A wall shelf held an array of more DVDs and SBaHJ merchandise, games, and one smuppet. Directly below the shelf was Dirk's bed, unmade. It was a king, but couldn't stand up to the term 'bed,' as it looked more like a nest of pillows piled on top of a big mattress. Next to the bed was a nightstand with a lava lamp that doubled as an alarm clock. Across from the bed was a small open space, then a TV with an Xbox in front of it—Jake saw someone had humorously altered it to read 'SEXbox.'

Jake couldn't help but snort. "Whatever happened to 'not being able to think straight when surroundings aren't in order', Dirk?"

"Chaos is inspiration in the bedroom, English. You never know what'll come next," he replied smoothly. Dirk seemed to be regaining his smugness. "But, sorry about the mess. I rarely have company other than Roxy, and her favorite place is the kitchen." The blonde let the last remark hang in the air.

"Righto, well, I'd say you've got a swell place going for you," Jake said, straightening his glasses. Honestly, he did like Dirk's place. He felt a twinge of jealousy, even. With all that space, Dirk could easily entertain several guests if he wanted to.

"Thanks, it gets lonely, living in such a huge house all by myself," Dirk remarked, as though reading Jake's thoughts. "Anyway, it's getting late, so let me show you the guest room. It's just on the other end of the hall, here."

They exited through a second door next to the TV. It opened up to a short hallway, and there was a room on the left side at the end. On the side with Dirk's room was a lavatory. While plain, it housed a comfortable-looking bed, nightstand, wash bin with a mirror, and a window that overlooked the front yard. There were also a few more framed photos.

"Thanks, chap! This will do nicely," Jake said cheerily, patting the bed experimentally before hunkering down upon it. The blonde leaned against the doorframe.

"Don't mention it," Dirk smiled. "Oh, and I have some extra clothes you can borrow, if you want. I'm making breakfast tomorrow, too."

"Not to worry! I think I'm quite set, thank you."

Dirk shrugged and turned to leave, but called back.

"G'night, Jake,"

"Pleasant dreams, Dirk."

Jake heard Dirk's door shut, and he sighed heavily. Poor guy. He made a mental note to treat him to something nice in the future as he pulled his shirt over his head, depositing it neatly on the nightstand. Jake vaguely noticed he had a sunburn.

Once he was comfortably situated in his shorts, he snuggled into the covers. They smelled like Dirk, and Jake found himself calmed by it.

That night, he dreamt again of chasing the eerily familiar figure, but this time, they stopped long enough for him to put his hand on their shoulder. They said something to him that Jake couldn't hear, but it sounded like they were asking for help.

They turned their head just as Jake woke.