Alone at last, said the auto responder.
“Christ, you’re the last thing I need right now,” Dirk muttered under his breath. He tapped the edge of his shades when Jake looked over, and Jake nodded. They’d had to develop signs to indicate these kinds of conversations back at John’s school. The AR’s presence had complicated every aspect of their social interactions. And to think he’d thought it would be a time-saver.
What, still getting over the revelation that sweet innocent Jane is capable of something so underhanded? Honestly, I’m impressed. I thought making improved copies of inadequate friends was your specialty. She’s been paying attention. Do you think she has a spot open for a co-regent? You could negotiate for Jake on the side; she’s already done you the solid of locking him somewhere he can’t get away from you.
Dirk had heard enough. He ripped the shades off and shoved them into his pocket. Something cracked. “Shut the fuck up.”
Jake jumped at Dirk’s raised voice and tried to cover the movement by passing a nervous hand through his hair. “Well pal, while not to put too fine of a point to things, we’re in a pickle, aren’t we?”
“No, that level of fineness is pinpoint. This isn’t the climactic throwdown with the Empress I’d pictured. But we can get things back on track.” Dirk gave the bars set in the door’s narrow window an experimental tug. The striped peppermint candy didn’t budge. He wasn’t desperate enough yet to try licking it. He looked over his shoulder to where Jake had been watching from the back of the cell. “You down to help?”
“You seemed comfortable taking the lead.”
Dirk kicked at a patch of mortar. What looked like old royal icing dried hard and crusted didn’t even dent. “My approach isn't making all that much progress.”
“I don’t want to be a wet blanket here, but maybe we should wait before rushing out with guns blazing.” Jake wished he had some sort of weapon, pistols or otherwise. They hadn’t packed any munitions in case it gave other worlds the wrong ideas – you wouldn’t want to get caught up in fantasy customs – and the supplies they’d brought had been confiscated. They didn’t have as much as a nail file for sawing through the bars. The swords the guards carried had looked sharp. Jake knew that back on a Logic-leaning world like Earth, foil-lined toffee would shatter if used in combat. He didn’t think a Nonsense world like Confection followed those rules, and he didn’t want to find out. “We don’t know where Roxy’s made off to, and Jane’s thrown in with that horned terror in the bangles. The others must’ve been tossed in the brig like us. If we get out of here, we might not have any backup. Do you have a plan?”
Dirk aimed one last kick at the wall. His only reward was that his foot hurt. “...no, I don't. You’re right. We should talk it out. You know.” He leaned against the wall to keep weight off his injured foot, glad the auto responder couldn’t see to comment on his lack of social poise. “Make a plan.”
For all that he’d suggested it, Jake didn’t look happy. “Ah yes. Talk. I guess there’s no avoiding it in these close quarters.”
Every time Dirk had bumped into him lately, Jake had remembered pressing errands. He’d begged off their past few sparring sessions over a bum knee, affecting an exaggerated limp only when reminded. “Were you avoiding me?”
True to form, Jake didn’t meet his eye. “Avoid is a strong word. I might have been postponing our interactions.”
Jake threaded his fingers together, a nervous tic Dirk recognized. Jake was all nervous tics these days. “I suppose it all got to be too overwhelming. I enjoyed our friendly banter and the chance to test my mettle in our daily scrums, but you started implying you might… view our time together as more than two pals having a grand old time.”
Jake hadn’t brought this up earlier for plenty of reasons, but a leading one was that he couldn’t find the right words. How did he object not to an activity, but to its possible interpretations? Training with Dirk had been fun. He’d relished a way to feel tough and capable after the debacle with the Blackout. Then Roxy had made a few comments, and Jane had gotten touchy about it, and he’d had to stop and wonder if yet again he’d read a situation all wrong. What was expected of him? What had people assumed? Why couldn’t people say what they meant? It would’ve been easier if he’d had a response lined up ready to any outright statement of amorous intent. But instead the concept was like a stone tablet uncovered in an ancient ruin, a new language to pick over and decipher. No one seemed willing to allow him the luxury of making up his own mind, just as they refused to lay the matter out in the open. A riddle from the ancients wouldn’t be this obtuse. “Pairing that with some rather ribald insinuations on the part of Hal —”
“Thanks for that,” Dirk said loudly.
You're welcome, came the muffled response. About time I got some credit for my service as your loyal wing man.
Jake held up a hand. Dirk didn’t know if he meant it as a placating or warding gesture. “It’s not that I wasn’t flattered, but I needed time to clear my head. Especially since I thought I detected certain tokens of regard from Jane as well. Although when the matter arose and I asked her point blank a few days ago, she denied them. Since that made matters in our little household a lot less complicated, I was happy to take her at her word, but…” He remembered the way the other him had reached so eagerly for her hand. “Given the recent evidence, that may have been too hasty.”
You mean how she built a candy-coated sex bot? Hal chimed in.
Dirk slapped a hand over his pocket.
Jake swallowed. This time, he’d also heard Hal’s electronic voice. “There’s no need to be so crass. I’m sure it’s nothing like that.” Privately, he wasn’t so sure. This debacle only confirmed his wisdom in not slowing down long enough for any of his aspiring suitors to catch up. “I’ve given her the run-around for so long, she must find cheerful compliance a nice change of pace. If I’m being honest, I don’t know what you all see in me.”
Dirk raised his eyebrows. “Are you going to panic if I state for the record that I do see something in you? Because we’re locked in a pretty small space right now. I don’t want to be responsible for you turning this place into your own cuboid hamster wheel if you try to run away from me.”
Jake sighed. He didn’t see any chance of evading the topic any longer, not now that he’d let the genie out of the bottle. “It’s a tender spot at the moment, thanks to the impostor out there and his likely intentions, but I’ll steel myself. Prod away.”
Dude, Hal said. Statements like that are dumping lubed up slices of premium beefsteak on the fire. No cold shower's gonna take care of that.
“You have to smother grease fires,” Dirk hissed back. “As a mechanic, I'm aware of basic workplace safety.” He slid his hand back over his pocket in what he hoped was a casual gesture. “...yeah. I guess. As long as we're being bleeding hearts here, I'll say this: You’re genuine. You all know me. It’s been a point of household criticism that I can’t lower my guards enough to express affection for anything without cloaking it in layers of irony and academic detachedness. Need I remind you of the anime night debacle?” Dirk had been grateful for the protection of shades when Roxy started launching popcorn at him because he wouldn’t just shut up and enjoy the show. Eventually Jane had declared she would sit on him until he admitted he was having fun, and he’d surrendered. Meanwhile, Jake had been moved to genuine tears by a stock shonen speech about friendship. “You’re so openly enthusiastic about the things you enjoy, it makes everyone else remember what it’s like to have a sense of childlike wonder, even cynical bastards like me. Not to mention you came out of your world toughened up by Tomb Raider-style shenanigans and survivalist training, capable of savoring life’s greatest pleasures whether they’re vintage comics or firearms heavier than a small child. If this were Regency England and you were a new arrival who’d let Netherfield Park at last, every matchmaking mother would be maneuvering their offspring toward you at the local dances.”
Jake didn’t speak for a moment. Then he said, “Oh.”
As responses to heartfelt confessions went, Dirk thought that was pretty piss-poor. Not that he’d been expecting any swooning into his arms, whatever the AR might accuse him of, but some sort of positive response might’ve been nice. “Did I lay it on too thick there? I’m not used to placing my still beating heart on the table; maybe I overdid it. My point was… I don’t know why someone wouldn’t see something in that, if they had fucking eyes. No offense to that troll with the oral fixation.”
“No, you’re fine,” Jake said hastily. “That was the kind of speech the leading man might deliver at the end of some earnest romantic moving picture. I suppose I just… I knew some of you fancied me, or I suspected, although I didn’t want to let on that I thought so in case I’d gotten a swelled head and misinterpreted gestures of regular platonic camaraderie, but…” He’d heard speeches like that in media, of course, but he’d started to think it was all a Hollywood illusion. The only thing he could imagine moving him to such dramatic displays was a first edition comic, or maybe the renewal of Firefly helmed by someone a little more socially aware. “I didn’t know you felt so strongly. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that strongly about anyone.”
“…Oh.” Now it was Dirk’s turn to deliver an inadequate response.
Jake winced. “I’m really putting my foot in it today, aren’t I? I wasn’t trying to give you the old icy mitt right after you ripped out your ticker for me, but I guess I’m still new in matters of the heart. I haven’t figured it all out yet, and the fact that the rest of you have, or at least you’ve all zeroed in on me, made it easier to stick my head under the sand.”
The thought of the AR’s reaction to him falling apart after getting pseudo-dumped kept Dirk outwardly calm. “I’m sorry if I came on too strong. After everything you’ve been through, I didn’t think I was dishing out anything you couldn’t handle.”
“About that.” Telling Rose the official version of his time with the Framed had reminded Jake how little of the truth he’d shared. Now that they were facing whatever had caused the Blackout, those white lies were growing grungy. “If we’re getting down to brass tacks, I must admit I may have left some things out of my narrative as well. Nothing as damning as Jane, but it could change your perspective of me.”
Before he could continue, the cell door swung open. Jane herself stepped through the opening, holding a trident in one gloved hand. Jake’s mouth slammed shut.
“Er,” Jane said. “So.”
Roxy shimmered into visibility behind her and raised both fists. “Surprise. You’d better not be planning on hurting them, heiress.”
Jane whirled to face her. “Surprise? Did you think I didn’t see you? You weren’t even trying to stay out of sight.”
“Uh.” Roxy dropped her fists, nonplussed. “I mean, I thought I was doing a pretty great job. Did you see me?” she asked the boys over Jane’s shoulder. They shrugged. “Point is, I’m here to stop any royal hijinks, ok?”
Exasperation overcame Jane’s awkwardness. “Honestly, all of you,” she snapped, and tossed the trident to the floor with the clatter. “Don’t act so ridiculous. I’m here to rescue you.”