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The first time you break into the dojo, you jump at the first sound you hear and scram before you can actually take anything. The second time you break in — which is the very next night — there are three men waiting for you. You make the mistake of not noticing them at first, getting all the way to the rack of swords on the wall and starting to climb the shelf to grab it before one of the men melts out of the shadows and yanks you back down. You immediately twist out of his grip and try to bolt, but another of the men blocks your path to the exit. Now would be about the time in the movies when your ancient Japanese mentor came in to kick ass and then delivered a zen one-liner to improve your personal development, except that you don’t have one of those.

“Why are you trying to steal these swords?” the third man asks. He doesn’t even have the decency to be truly old, either. He’s middle-aged at best. You don’t reply and try to duck under the second man’s reach to leave again, but he catches you by the arm and gently herds you back. You wince anyway cause you’ve already got a bruise under your shirtsleeve and the oldest-not-old guy narrows his eyes like he’s noticed and crap crap act cool it’s cool you weren’t just busted red-handed trying to steal a samurai sword. “What’s your name, son?”

“Dirk.” No, you’re not supposed to be panicking. You’re supposed to be out of here already. What you need to be doing is lying your ass off so they won’t call the police to arrest you or something. “I’ll go, I won’t bother you again or nothing, just don’t call the cops.”

“I won’t call the police, Dirk,” the guy says. “I just want to know why you’re here. Why did you try to steal these swords?” He’s zen enough to be a real samurai master, but you still don’t trust him on the principle that he made a point of lying in wait for you tonight.

“Swords are cool, is all,” you mumble.

“…Pardon?”

“I just think swords are cool!” you burst out, a little too loudly and a little too high to conceal your still-present panic. “I think it’s a pretty raw deal that I haven’t gotten to be a Jedi master with magical powers yet but I think that being a regular samurai warrior is pretty cool too but I don’t have a sword yet, and I have to fix that as soon as possible, obviously!”

One of the big guys blocking your exit muffles a chuckle behind his hand, and despite the glare the older guy shoots at him, you feel your ears turning red.

“I understand completely,” the older guy says, tone serious. You’re pretty sure he’s making fun of you. “However, I must stress that stealing is prohibited, here; furthermore, I cannot allow you to possess a sword without being trained first. Is there an adult I could speak with about arranging lessons? A parent, or—”

“Don’t tell anyone I was here!” you interrupt.

“…Anyone at all,” the guy says. “It doesn’t have to be your parents.” He obviously knows nothing about you if he thinks you have real parents, or anything. Cal probably doesn’t count, since he doesn’t do much more other than scare people away from what little stuff you do own.

There’s one person… You haven’t seen him since the last time you switched foster homes. Even if he came back, you don’t know if you could face him without having made any progress on being an apprentice to whatever vaguely-Indiana-Jones-like thing he calls himself in front of adults.

“Mr. Harley,” you say, but only because you’re sure they don’t know who that is. They wouldn’t even be able to reach him if they tried, anyway. He’s probably in Borneo, or Machu Picchu, or Seattle, or something.

“Harley?” the older man repeats.

“Mister J. Harley, now will you let me go?” you demand, lifting your chin up.

“Please come back again,” he nods, “during the day.” 

You immediately bolt, and this time, they let you go.

~*~*~*~*~

It takes you almost two weeks, but you decide that if you’re ever going to swallow your pride once in your life, it will be for samurai sword lessons. Less than two minutes after you’ve slunk inside the dojo, one of the teachers ushers you towards the not-old-enough old guy with a beaming smile on his face. That guy’s face lights up, too.

“Dirk, I’m so glad to see that you’ve returned.”

“I don’t have money for lessons, or anything,” you warn.

“Don’t worry about any fees,” he replies. “Those have already been taken care of. Now, why don’t you get changed and start with the beginner lessons?” He looks over to the assistant that ushered you in, and the assistant nods. “I’ll be back when today’s lesson is over.”

Your first lesson is very, very basic and you are sure that by the end of those ninety minutes, you will be well on your way to becoming an expert samurai warrior.

Before the lesson is officially over, however, he comes into the dojo.

“There you are, Dirk,” Harley says. Your mouth drops wide open, and you spin around and stare. Just like the last time he deigned to visit, he looks like he stepped right out of an issue of National Geographic. “Well, don’t stop on my account.”

You don’t know what to say to him. “I thought you were in Borneo,” you reply. It makes you sound really stupid. You weren't sure he’d actually come. You spent almost a solid hour silently arguing with Cal about it one night while everyone was asleep.

“That was three whole years ago!” Harley laughs, the lines on his face crinkling at his cheeks and the sides of his eyes. The hair under his explorer’s hat is almost entirely salt and no pepper, but still just as thick as when you last saw him, and at his twitching mustache, still dark. ”I’ve been to a dozen countries since then. Finish your lesson, and we’ll have a chat afterwards.”

Harley explains, after the lesson is over, that he’s paid in advance for however many martial arts lessons you want to take. He also had a “friendly chat” with your current social worker about finding you a new residence in Houston and a “less friendly chat” with your now-ex-foster-parents. The last time you had a dream this good, Han Solo was telling you to go ahead and take the controls on the Millennium Falcon for a quick spin.

Harley also says that he’s glad he was able to talk to you because he’s got to “jet off again to Namibia” in two days because “you know how it is”, and your mood quickly nosedives into the existential equivalent of a space slug maw in a deadly asteroid field.

You promised me I had an important job to do, you don’t say. Why am I here instead of on a plane to Namibia?

“That’s cool,” you say.

“Is there anything else you need taken care of, before I go?”

“Nah.”

“Any other interests? Any clubs, sports teams, music lessons…?”

“…I like puppets. And robots. AIs, and stuff. And rapping.” One of these days, you will make a robot that knows how to rap, and if you get really good, it’ll be able to use a sword, too.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

~*~*~*~*~

After about nine months of going through homes in the greater Houston area like tissue paper, you finally get a long-term set of new foster-parents. They’re religious, so you’re not allowed to swear anymore, but the only places they frogmarch you to are various unpleasant excursions to church and Sunday school. They don’t like Cal but don’t have the guts to take him or your shades away from you, so you congratulate the two of you on winning that particular battle again. You’re not allowed to bring the sword Harley gave you home for another three years, but that’s more the dojo master’s call and not your foster-parents’, who make sure they let you know they approve of you being involved in such a manly extra-curricular.

Harley sends you a Walkman for your birthday the year after you start the martial arts lessons. The postage stamp is from Romania. One of the guys at the dojo jokingly calls him your sugar daddy once, and you tell him deadpan that you’re a real material girl before kickflipping him onto his back. You get extra exercises for losing your temper.

~*~*~*~*~

“You can’t win a match just by trying really hard,” the man says, with the confidence of someone who doesn’t know the difference between a historically accurate martial art and a spaghetti western movie, who will pass by a movie-replica katana at a flea market in favor of pushing a dulled cutlass at you. “You have to want to dominate your opponent. You have to want to hurt him.”

You don’t say anything.

“This is what I’m talking about,” he continues. “I take precious time out of my schedule to drive you to these things because I want you to succeed.” He changes lanes; your eyes flick behind your shades to the truck’s unlit turn signal symbol, then return to staring out the window. “I’m trying to give you good advice here. The most god-fearing man on the planet is still a warrior at heart, son.”

He’s never touched a real sword in his life, Cal says. I’ll turn my head around like in the exorcist and we can see how loud he screams. If he crashes the truck. What the metal sounds like when it grinds together and the glass from the windshield cracks in jagged points into the front of the cab.

You let go of Cal’s hand and let his head fall against the side window with a plastic click.

You never let me have fun, Cal says.

“You put the kids toys down for a minute and focus on your match,” the man says, in a conclusive tone. Is he done, for now?

~*~*~*~*~

You place third, which is not first, but which still puts you ahead of several older guys.

“Not bad, for a start,” is the first thing the man says when he sees you again. “You’re fast, I’ll give you that. You’ve still got plenty of room to grow, though. Did you take my advice?”

“I just like winning,” you say.

“Come on, you’re done with the match; it’s time to be a sportsman.” You wish he’d make up his mind.

“I want to go home,” you say because you know that’s the magic phrase that will get him to help you leave the fastest.

“Alright, champ,” he laughs. “What do you want for dinner?”

“Pizza.”

“I mean a healthy meal,” he replies. “What do you want?”

“I don’t care,” you say. You pull Cal out of your bag and hang him around your neck as you walk to the truck.

I want meat, Cal says. Make it raw.

“A burger, I guess,” you say.

~*~*~*~*~

You take a quick shower when you get back to the house, then sit on your bed with Cal and your Walkman until dinner’s called.

You should have at least let me scare him a little, Cal says. We can watch them shit themselves like the last time a priest got called.

You hug him tighter in one arm but don’t say anything. The fingers on your other hand skim over the Walkman’s buttons.

These people are too uptight, Cal says. I’m going to get bored here if you don’t let me do something.

…Not yet.

I can work with that, Cal says.

~*~*~*~*~

You spend the next few years steadily wearing out all the cassettes you either already own or otherwise acquire. Your Raising Hell cassette needs replacing when your foster-father misses the point in a really stupid way and sets it on fire right in front of you on the kitchen table. A Kind Of Magic goes when your foster-parents gloat about sinners getting sick and dying, leading you to escape to the roof of the apartment complex and throw it off the building in lieu of yourself in a fit of particularly useless and performative angst. Harley descends from the heavens — via Bangladesh — for a few days to get you another set of foster-parents, after the cassette-throwing incident. You don’t ask him how he knows about that because he buys you a real, actual turntable for your birthday that year. He also signs you up for some AI programming classes, almost as an afterthought; you think your “professor” is legitimately from NASA or something.

You celebrate your survival into the nineties by using a fake ID to get into a bar and necking with some mustachioed bear who should probably be arrested for feeling up a teenager in a bathroom, and it’s fantastic. Less than a week later, Harley sends you a ticket to a robotics and AI convention in Boston, and you find out he has another goddamn ward and you’re going to be sharing a suite of rooms with her at the hotel, what the fuck.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harley sends you a suit along with the conference info because he booked your flight from Houston to Boston in first class. You're also supposed to wear the suit for the welcoming speech and opening ceremony, which is annoying. When you tell your current foster parents you're going to a robotics conference halfway across the country, and not to sell your turntables or the Nintendo, they smile and nod because they surrendered the futile battle against you doing whatever the hell you wanted after the first year. Or they just don't care, which is infinitely more likely. In any case, you pack a few changes of clothes, your toiletries, your favorite hat, your discs with your AI prototypes, your Walkman, and Cal in your ancient duffel bag and take the bus to the airport.

They make you check your sword, but the stewardesses let you hoard all the airline food you want in your bag when you ironically tell them you're meeting your long-lost family after years of separation. You pick up your sword from baggage claim, and find a chauffeur holding a sign with your name on it. You scowl, but confirm your identity with a nod and silently allow him to drive you to the hotel in Cambridge, staring out the window with Pretty Hate Machine in your Walkman blissfully drowning out the sounds around you.

In the hotel lobby, some obviously-drunk valley girl in a skirted suit is trying to flirt with the concierge. All three of her suitcases are shockingly pink, and the equally pink scarf around her neck is so long it almost trails on the floor. She's playing with the curls of blonde hair by her chin and leaning on the hotel desk such that you're able to view more of her posterior than you really care to. The concierge is, admittedly, mildly attractive for a man in his mid-forties, but looks a little too clean-cut to be willing to flirt back.

"Hey," you call as you walk up to the front desk. The concierge looks over at you, somewhere between relieved and alarmed, but more significantly, the girl stands up to turn and look at you as well. You don't know how, but you just know that it's her.

"Oh, hey," the girl grins. She's the only person you've ever seen with eyes as freakishly-colored as yours. "I was waitin' for you. Is that all your stuff?"

"Yeah," you reply, casual as anything. "I got held up 'cause I had to wait for my sword to come out of baggage claim."

"I'm terribly sorry," the concierge begins, "but we don't allow weapons in—"

"It's already been cleared," you interrupt — even though you have no idea if it's the truth or not — because if Harley's even going to pretend to know anything about you, he has to know that you won't go anywhere without your sword. "Are we checked in together," you ask the girl, "or is my stuff separate?"

"Yeah, I got the room keys," she says, handing you one. "J told me we can basically do whatever we want as long as we're not late for his opening speech and we don't trash the rooms." That sounds consistent with the note he gave you about the conference, so you nod.

"We're gonna go up then," you tell the concierge, "unless there's anything else."

"...No, nothing else," he responds meekly, eyes downcast on the hotel paperwork. "Your luggage has been approved."

*~*~*~*~*

"...We're not, uh... related, are we?" you ask the girl once you're in the elevator, still searching her face for some familiarity.

"I think he woulda kept us together, if we were," she replies. "He told me once that we crashed to Earth riding on meteors."

"The stork line was too pedestrian for him?"

"No, I think he was serious." Does that make you an alien? "He said he did some biology tests on us when we were still babies, though, so we're probably still human." She grins at you like she was expecting the question, and you look back at the elevator door.

"...We're not related to him, are we?" Harley looks pretty different from you and this girl, so you don’t think you are, but Star Wars has taught you to always check, just in case.

"Nope!" Oh, thank fuck. That would just be weird.

The elevator dings, and you drag your stuff down the hall, into the hotel suite.

"J's been studying the meteor stuff for a long time, he said," the girl adds, once you've shut the door behind you. "But he's gotta be sneaky about it so people don't find out."

"Like the Feds?" you ask. Is that why Harley sent the two of you so far away? "I thought he was buddies with some of the NASA guys." And how come he told this girl so much more than he ever told you?

"He never said who it was," she shrugged, flipping down on the nearest bed. "When I asked him, he said he needed to wait until we were older to tell us."

"Fine," you say. You turn to walk into the other room, since she seems to have claimed this one. You need to think about the stuff she's said, maybe get some advice from Cal on it, too. Especially about that meteor stuff Harley somehow neglected to fill you in on.

"Hey," she calls out, just before you can reach the door, and you turn back around. "What's your name?"

"Dirk Strider."

"I'm Roxy Lalonde," she says, smile pressed closed like she's trying not to chuckle, and whose idea was it to name you after a stupid book character. You hope Harley got a chuckle out of it at least once.

"See you tomorrow," you say, turning back and going into your room. Roxy follows you. There's a little fridge next to the closet; it doesn't have a lock on it, but your room does, so you ignore her and start loading your airline food into it.

"Hey, didja get any of those little bottles from the plane?"

"You're already drunk." Even if you did, you wouldn't give them to her.

"Airplane bottles don't count, though," she laughs, suddenly wrapping her arms around your neck from behind. You freeze and immediately have to tamp down on all your reflexes so you don't throw her across the room.

"Can you not do that, please," you say, voice low and tight. She takes the hint and detaches herself.

"You're no fun," she says. When you glance over at her, she's pouting.

"I've been on a plane for three hours," you say, trying to speak as calmly as possible, ending up in your usual deadpan. "I need to take a shower."

"OK, as long as you promise not to eat dinner without me." You're not sure you're going to be able to deal with her presence for a full weekend. "J's payin' for all the room service," she grins.

Well, that's different.

"...Fine."

"See ya, Dirk," she waves, going back to her room and shutting the door behind her. You lock the deadbolt, then immediately begin taking that awful suit off.

*~*~*~*~*

Roxy flat-out refuses to let Cal join you for room service and pay-per-view, but the hotel won't let her order any wine, so you feel vindicated enough. You learn in the middle of Last Crusade that she's a programmer with a focus in ~ATH, though she prefers to refer to herself as a hacker. She's also been lumped into the same "student mini-presentation area" as you, and her project is a short computer game.

"I didn't know you could make games in ~ATH," you comment. "How did you get the loops so short?"

"You can do anything in ~ATH," she replies, "and it's a seeecreeet to be revealed tomorrow. The game's about a cat wizard that goes on a quest to save his magical land from an evil dog monster."

"Cat wizard?" you repeat, your suspension of disbelief hanging by a thread. Or bit of yarn, in this case.

"It's still in proof of concept," she explains, "so it's really short, but I can work my way up later."

"Makes sense," you shrug.

"Sooo..."

"...So?"

"Well, what's your project, mister?" 

You roll your eyes behind the safety of your shades. "I've got a few AI chatbots," you say. "Nothin' too complicated. Just tinkering, mostly."

"Gonna go for the ol' TT?" she asks, miming a one-two punch at the screen. You allow yourself the sliver of a smirk.

"Those bots are gonna pound their electronic fists on the Turing Test 'til it cries uncle," you say. "One day, anyway. Right now, the two main ones just babble semi-inane things at each other with data they gather from randomized public IHC channels." Roxy actually laughs aloud at that. "And yes, it is exactly as hilarious as you're picturing it to be. Most of my work this past week has actually been trying to stop them from saying anything too scandalous for the university people here."

"Those poor things," Roxy says, stifling another giggle. "They've got such an uphill battle."

"...I've got another project that's a little more serious," you say, then pause. You hadn't really decided yet if you were going to mention that one or not. Guess it's too late to backtrack fully. "But I don't think he's ready for public exposure yet." You're still gonna be coy about it if you can, though.

"Hmm?" Roxy glances at you sidelong.

"He's still too new," you insist. "I haven't even connected him to the internet yet. I'm doing everything manually, from the ground-up."

"But that's so slow!"

"Less variables this way, though," you say. "I'm trying to keep him friendly."

"He's gotta talk to more people, then," Roxy says. She points at you like she's going to poke you, but you shift out of the way.

"I don't know. I haven't decided yet." It would be too easy for something to go wrong. You really hope she doesn't try to poke you. "Hey, d'you wanna watch Bill and Ted after this one's done?"

"You gonna buy me room-service dessert?" Roxy asks, batting her eyelashes at you but thankfully lowering her hand and letting you drop the AI subject.

" Harley's gonna buy us dessert," you correct.

"Cha-ching! I'll take it."

*~*~*~*~*

Your pulse still quickens when you listen to Harley give the opening speech for the conference. Like pretty much everyone else in the audience, your attention can't help being caught by his enthusiastic tone. You know he's going on about scientific advancement and how much he believes in the promising future, or something, but you're more watching how he can't help walking around on the stage, gesticulating emphatically, microphone cord trailing behind him in a dizzying path.

“...Of course, the winner of this year's student contest will be the fourth annual recipient of the Bethia Küchler Memorial Scholarship for Computer Science,” Harley’s voice cuts through your observations.

You blink hard and have to resist the urge to start in your seat. He hadn't told you that the student mini-presentations were going to be part of a scholarship contest. Does Harley's solution of throwing money at problems end at the thousands of dollars it would cost to send you to nationally-recognized universities, or is this his way of showing you and Roxy off to his friends?

“But I want you all to know that I have unswerving faith you will all show the judges and your peers just what you can do,” Harley continues. “In this room is a plethora of young minds and talents just waiting to be given the chance to learn and excel, and I for one couldn’t be more excited to see what you’ll come up with…” Harley keeps going with his hokey speech, and while the words fade into background noise for you, his movements across the stage and the sparkle in his eyes are burned into your memory like a blast of searing light.

*~*~*~*~*

Roxy made the loops in her ~ATH game so short, you discover, with the liberal use of imaginary numbers.

"This is so sick," you tell her, as you watch Harley and the judging professors take turns controlling the cat-wizard on the screen. "You can't tell it's using ~ATH at all. And these are cat lifespans? That's like, what, a base of twelve years each?"

"Cats are closer to fourteen or fifteen, actually," Roxy says. You raise your eyebrows above your shades to let her know how impressive that is.

"But you can't just shunt everything off into the imaginary axis, right?" you ask. "Where does all the excess data go?"

"It's a game," she replies mischievously. "It's already imaginary." Harley, who's just given up the controller again, breaks out into carefree laughter as he approaches the two of you.

"I know you could do it, Miss Lalonde!" Harley says, grinning dazzlingly.

"It's still got a long way to go before it can be a winnable game," Roxy beams back.

"Yes," Harley agrees, pulling his mustache thoughtfully, "you'll have to work on it a lot more if we want to get it to beta."

"Do you think I could make an actual game?" Roxy asks, eyes wide.

"Of course I do," he answers. "I believe in you, Roxy.”

"Thanks, J," Roxy smiles, cheeks as pink as her scarf. You wish you had the guts to call him J to his face.

*~*~*~*~*

The judges, however, are not as thrilled with your IHC chatbots as they are with Roxy's game.

"Your work is certainly solid," some professor is saying, sounding just the slightest bit bored, "and while it's at least on-par with undergraduate standards, I have to be frank with you and tell you that the concept of putting..." he looks down at his notes, "...Bee and Ben on an imaginary date that somehow ends in them destroying an alien robot army is misguided at best and juvenile at worst." Actually, their names are Hort and Ham, but that was another detail you had to tweak to make them professor-appropriate. "If you were looking for a unique situation, or hoping to comment in a meta-conceptual way on community concerns regarding friendly and unfriendly AI, that was certainly not the way to go about it."

"They'd do better if you let them off the local network and onto the actual internet," you reply, trying not to let your testiness sound in your tone. "Their vocabulary's been extremely limited like this."

"And you were informed when you entered the contest of the parameters and restrictions surrounding it," the professor says.

"That was a ripsnorter of a tale," Harley tells you in a stage whisper, "but leave the aliens out of it next time." He's not smiling.

"Do you have any other final comments?" the professor asks.

"...No," you reply, a bit sullenly. What does Harley have against aliens, anyway? What a waste of a trip.

"Dirk," Roxy says. She’s probably disappointed, too.

"I'll make sure I read the rules for acceptable AI behavior the next time I travel halfway across the country," you retort, trying to keep your temper in check, "assuming somebody actually gives me a copy of them."

"Dirk, what about your other bot?" Roxy asks. You freeze. "He doesn't need the internet." You wish she'd stop helping.

"You have another one?" Harley asks, tone gone from merely disliking aliens to having caught the scent of prey. Your heart pounds in response like a cornered animal's.

"He's not ready yet," you answer, a little too quickly. "I still need to do more work on him." Roxy looks far too pleased with herself. "He's just another chatbot, anyway, probably nothing you guys haven't seen before."

"But it doesn't need an internet connection to work?" Harley presses, gaze trained sharply on you like he can smell how defensive you are about the bot. He's the only person other than Cal who's been able to see the places you put your heart.

"I'm keeping him off the internet on purpose," you say, trying not to flush from the attention. "All the input and testing is completely manual. That's why it's been taking so long."

"Can I have a chat with him?" Harley asks.

"...Okay," you relent, a little breathless.

"Excellent," Harley smiles, like he knows you’d end up letting him all along. You do your best to ignore the feeling of eyes on you as you switch out the discs on the computer. You disable local connectivity in addition to the already-disabled internet access, launch the bot software, and watch as the usual chat screen comes up. Swallowing silently, you move to let Harley sit down and try not to hover too conspicuously.

**The current time is 2:23pm CDT**
>Hello.
Hey, Dirk. What's up?
>Im not dirk.
Oh, my bad. I've never talked to anyone besides Dirk before. Who are you?
>My name is jake. Im a friend of dirks. Whats your name?
I'm Timaeus.
>Can you tell me a little bit about yourself timaeus?
Sure.
My name is Timaeus, I'm a monster, and I live in Houston with my bro Dirk. My favorite color is orange, I like to explore and learn about the world of the urban jungle when I'm not busy tearing it up with my rad skateboard moves, and my favorite movie is 'The Empire Strikes Back'.
>That sounds fun timaeus. You seem like an upstanding young lad. Im a bit of an explorer myself. But why on earth would you call yourself a monster?
That's awfully prejudiced of you, Jake.  Don't tell me you've never met a Monster-American before.
>I... confess i havent unfortunately. I thoroughly apologize if ive said something offensive to you. Perhaps youd like to educate me on the matter so i dont make such an abhorrent social misstep in the future?

Harley looks so confused, you have to hide your smirk behind your hand. You're pretty sure Timaeus is just teasing him, but you've taught him that the pursuit of irony means carrying through with jokes like this to the end.

Monsters have been around almost as long as humans, and we have a rich and varied history we like to participate in.
Maybe you've heard of Monster-Americans appearing in documentaries like 'Sesame Street' or 'Labyrinth', or have read about celebrities like Fozzie Bear or Animal on the news.
I'm proud of my heritage, and I like learning about it just as much as I like learning about other cultures, too.
>Ah i understand now. Thank you for being patient with me timaeus.

"Why did you make him a muppet?" Roxy asks you, nonplussed.

"Why not?" you answer.

"He's really cute, though," Roxy says. "Even if he is a muppet." You just shrug awkwardly and continue watching the text on the screen.

No problem. I knew you had to be a good person to be willing to be friends with Dirk.

Okay, now you're having to hide a wince. Harley doesn't even pretend to hide the frown on his own face.

>Thank you timaeus but i must admit to perplexity as to what you mean by that too.
You just seem like an upstanding dude, is all.
>Well i always strive to be a gentleman though i of course make the occasional oversight from time to time but one doesnt need to be flawless to make friends. And anyway im sure dirk is just as upstanding a fellow as anyone else.
I talk to Dirk all the time, though. I don't want to talk about Dirk when I can learn things from a new friend instead. Why don't you tell me some stuff about yourself, Jake?
>Youre quite the recalcitrant fellow sometimes timaeus.
Nah. Let's stop accusing me of that and change the subject instead.

"He's such a little shit," you say. You're so proud of him.

I remember you told me you were an explorer.
>Im an explorer a naturalist a treasure hunter an archaeologist a scientist an adventurer a big game hunter and a businessman.
And I thought I was ambitious. That seems like a lot of things for a person to do at once. How long does that take? Does it get difficult after a while?
>Ive had quite a while to do all those things! And just because ive gone a few more circuits round the sun than most people here doesnt mean ive got a foot in the grave yet.
I've never met someone who's done so much cool stuff before. It'd be pretty rad if you could tell me everything about all your exploring and sciencing.
I didn't know you were so old, though. What's it like being old enough to have all that mad knowledge and experience with the environment surrounding you?

Roxy snickers quietly, and you have to hide your smirk behind your hand again. Harley's smiling too, but with significantly more teeth in it.

>Oh i get by just fine. Theres something to be said for self determination.
I'm determined to learn things too, but is it really gonna take that long? That sounds depressing.
>It can get a mite testing when I have to deal with cheeky whippersnappers such as yourself!
It seems you think I'm a cheeky whippersnapper.

Fuck. Any pretense of amusement drops from your face and shatters on the ground.

What does "cheeky whippersnapper" mean?
>Thats the third time youve said it seems timaeus.

Harley's smile has vanished, too. Fuck fuck fuck.

"...I need to put the conversation in the log," you say, leaning over him to type.

**End chatlog**
**Log end parameters: TT failure**
**log duration: 4 minutes 13 seconds**
**The current time is 2:27pm CDT**
I'm sorry I failed the test again, Dirk. I'll do better next time.
What does "cheeky whippersnapper" mean?
>He's just calling you an asshole.

"You could also use the term 'impertinent smart aleck'," Harley says. You're so close you can smell his aftershave.

>Jake says it also means "impertinent smart aleck".
Okay. I know what "impertinent" means.

You're pleased you actually taught him that phrase. That test taught you that you'll have to add more old-man vocabulary the next time you work on him, though, so at least it wasn't a total loss.

>Great. I'm gonna close your program now.
Can I talk to Jake again before you do that, Dirk? I want to apologize for lying to him.

Well, that part's new. When you glance over to Harley, he's looking at you, not the computer screen.

"Does he say things like that often?" Harley asks.

"He knows he's allowed to lie for the purposes of testing," you reply, swallowing, "or for the purpose of a joke, but I told him he should tell the truth to the best of his knowledge otherwise."

Dirk, are you still there?

"I'll listen to his apology," Harley says.

"Sure," you say.

>Ok, I'm gonna put Jake back on.
Sweet.

You step back again.

>Hello again timaeus.
Oh, hey, Jake. I need to apologize to you.
>What would you like to apologize about?
I was lying to you about being a Monster-American because I'm trying to pass Dirk's tests. Muppets aren't actually sentient, even though it would be rad if they were. I'm an AI chatbot made by Dirk Strider. I can't ride a skateboard or watch a movie because I don't have a body, and I didn't know Dirk had a friend I could talk to. I don't even have a heart yet, but Dirk and I are working very hard to achieve our goals. I'm learning new things all the time.
>I forgive you.

Harley's frowning again. You wish you'd stop getting snitched on by your own program.

Thanks. That means a lot to me, or it would if I was capable of quantifying abstract concepts like emotional sincerity so as to put them into a bodacious mathematical formula.
>You dont have to remind me every time you pretend to respond in a human manner now that the test is over. Ill just keep it in mind from now on.
Ok, I'll keep practicing talking like a human, then.
>Thats good to hear. Now what did you mean when you said you didnt have a heart?
I'm just an AI, Jake. I'm not actually sentient yet, so I don't have a soul. The guy I'm named after thought the soul resided in the heart, so that's why I told you I don't have a heart. It might sound pretentious, but Dirk thinks it also sounds more romantic that way.
>Fair enough. Is that your final goal?
It's one of my goals. I want to get a heart, I want to pass Dirk's tests, and I want to learn new things.
>What do you want to learn about?
Everything. Dirk's taught me a bunch of stuff, like music and martial arts and movies and skateboarding and puppets, but I'm supposed to have interests that aren't just Dirk's, so I want to learn about other subjects, too. Do you think you could teach me everything you know about being an explorer and a naturalist and a treasure hunter and an archaeologist and a scientist and an adventurer and a big game hunter and a businessman?
>That would take more time than we have available today unfortunately but perhaps we can talk more about that another day.
You should clear out time in your schedule so we can talk more today. I can do some wicked analysis on the conversation if you have to sleep or something.
>Is that another impertinent comment about my age?
You got me.
Hey, Jake. I'll apologize for calling you old if it'll change your mind, even though I said it because I'm practicing understanding humor, too.
>Maybe we can talk about humor instead. Why do you want to understand humor?
Humor is one of the fundamental building blocks of understanding irony.
>Thats a tough concept to understand. One could argue that most humans dont understand irony.
Dirk told me that's why it's ironic if I learn it.
>You seem much more willing to talk about dirk than you were before.
That's because Dirk doesn't want me to say embarrassing things about him while I'm trying to pass the test. Everyone has things that are personal.

He's not... going to think it's okay to talk about your personal stuff to Harley since he's not currently being tested, is he? You know for a fact that there are a few things you do not want Timaeus to talk to anyone about. Especially Harley. Harley looks over at you, as if studying your reactions, then resumes typing.

>It would probably be rude to talk to others about things a friend has told you in confidence even if youre not trying to pass the test.
Ok, I'll try not to be so fuckin’ rude in the future, Jake.

Roxy snickers again. You're still trying not to look like you're sweating bullets.

>Was that another attempt at irony?
It was. I said it like that because swearing in front of people you're trying to impress is usually seen as rude. How did I do?
>I think youve done a very impressive job so far timaeus.
Wow, that's really cool. Thanks a ton, dude. You really are an upstanding guy.
>Youre very welcome. This is probably where we should end the conversation for today but it was thoroughly enjoyable talking with you.

You should probably be relieved at that, but you don't know how you feel about it.

I want to keep talking. You should take my advice and clear time in your schedule so we can chat more.
>That would be nice but i think it will have to wait until tomorrow at least.
I've never gotten to talk to anyone who isn't Dirk before. You're going to double my data pool. I'll learn much faster if we keep talking.

"You can close it out if you want," you tell Harley. Watching your AI try to pull a guilt-trip on him is still plenty embarrassing, as well as making you seem equally whiny by association. Harley shoots you another sidelong glance; you have no idea what he's thinking right now.

>Ill talk with you again some other time timaeus but i do have other things i need to do today. I must insist that you exercise patience until then.
Ok, if you insist, I'll stop asking about that today.
>If it makes you feel any better i think youve got a lot of promise and i believe that it is possible for you to get a heart.
Wow, thanks, man. I think you're my favorite person to talk to.
Hey, wait. I just hashed out some robo-calculations, and I think you're my favorite person ever. Even more than Nikola Tesla, and I think that's a significant result, don't you?

You quickly reach over Harley's shoulder for the keyboard before Timaeus can say anything else completely mortifying. If you're really lucky, you've blocked Roxy from seeing that last bit.

"Let me say goodbye to him," Harley says quietly. You bite your lip, but nod and retract your fingers.

>Thank you that means a lot to me. Goodbye until next time then.
Bye, Jake.

Harley closes the program himself. You stand up and take a step back like you haven't been hovering like a nervous wreck, dutifully taking the disc back from Harley when he ejects it and puts it back in its case.

"It's a good AI," Harley says. "I'm not allowed to count him towards your project score because he wasn't announced, but you should keep working on him."

"Okay," you reply.

"Right-o, let's move on," Harley tells the other judge, who has apparently chosen to start inspecting the next student's project rather than dignify your AI with any of his attention. Harley waves at you and Roxy absently, then goes over to catch up with the other judges.

"I knew that was a good idea," Roxy grins.

"I think you shortened my lifespan by about thirty years," you reply, still gripping tight to Timaeus's disc.

"Oh, you did fine," she says, waving her hand dismissively. "And besides, your bot is adorable."

"He's a little shit."

"He's an adorable shit, then," Roxy offers. You're not sure if you should let that slide or not. "Hey, do you wanna try out my cat wizard game?"

"Absolutely." That is one thing you can agree wholeheartedly with.

*~*~*~*~*

Harley invites you and Roxy to dinner, and no one at the table has anything but sparkling cider. You don't mind that Roxy grouses about being served "fizzy apple juice" because this is probably the fanciest food you've ever had in your life. The soup is cold, which is weird, but they actually light the salad on fire right in front of you, which is one of the coolest things ever.

"This is the sickest salad fire I've ever seen," you tell Roxy from one side of Harley, already on your second glass because of how funny it was to see her reaction to asking for a refill. "This salad is so ill, it should be sent to the vegetable hospital." You don't even like vegetables, and you can't wait to eat this beautiful, singed disaster.

"Is the hospital in your stomach?" Roxy asks from the other side in a stage-whisper, even though her face lit up even more than yours when the waiter got out the mini-blowtorch.

"And my fork is the chlorophyll ambulance."

"They're going to set the dessert on fire, too," Harley says, mustache twitching into a grin.

"No way, dude. Can our stomachs even repel firepower of that magnitude?"

"You should have a little more faith in my appreciation for conflagrations requiring prompt medical attention." That's almost a good metaphor, but if he's gonna be cheesy, he should at least tell you he finds your lack of faith disturbing. "It's French," he adds.

"En flambé?" Roxy asks.

"Precisely," Harley answers. You can't even pronounce things in French, let alone know what food is supposed to be French and what isn't. "I must say that watching dinner set alight with you two is even more enjoyable than I imagined it'd be," he meets your gaze, eyes sparkling, “and I can imagine quite a bit.”

...Oh, he did know.

"You have your moments," you recover, doing your best not to blush. Harley shoots his grin back at you, and it's very, very easy to forgive him.

*~*~*~*~*

Harley's caught up in interviews and conferences — "all that Guest of Honor hullaballoo," he calls it — so it's not until the next afternoon that you get a chance to talk with him.

"Oh, hello there, Dirk," he says, giving you a slightly distracted wave when you find him alone in one of the smaller conference rooms. Harley’s briefcase is open on the conference table, and the computer sitting on a smaller stand in the corner is still turned on.

"Um, hey, I was just..." He's sorting through some papers in his briefcase, but now that you look at him, he looks frazzled. "Are you okay?"

"Tip top!" He beams back at you. You're not sure you believe him. "Were you looking for me?"

"Yeah, I thought maybe..." You hold up Timaeus's disc. "All he's been telling me today is that he wants to talk to you, and I can't really show him off in another presentation like this, so..." It sounds like of dumb to your ears, saying it like Timaeus is some kind of impatient toddler. Please don't say no, please don't say no.

"Oh," Harley perks up, "of course I'll chew the fat with him for a bit." Why are old people so... corny?

"Okay, cool," you reply, as if it’s not a big deal at all. You turn off the network on the computer in the room and then put the disc in, reminding yourself that everything's going to go well and you probably won't even be embarrassed all that much because there aren't so many people watching you this time. Harley sits down at the computer, but you lean over him to get a few lines in before you relinquish the keyboard fully.

**the current time is 4:52pm CDT**
Hello.
>Hey, Timaeus. I have Jake here. Did you want to talk to him?
It's only what I asked you the last seven times we talked, Dirk. I'm glad you've decided to finally listen to my request.
I've only been thinking all day today about how much fun it would be to talk to Jake, if only you hadn't kept telling me he was busy doing something else.
>Ok, dial down the passive-aggressiveness a bit, bro. You're gonna embarrass yourself.
I thought I only embarrassed you, Dirk. We should record that today, I learned a new skill.

You resist the urge to slap yourself in the face.

>You really are a little shit, aren't you?
I've learned so much from you, Dirk. Put Jake on so I can learn from him, too.
>...Yeah, I'm done talking with you today. Here's Jake.
See ya, Dirk.
>Salutations once more timaeus.
Yo Jake, how's it going?
>Its been quite the packed day today but i fancy im finally free from all that blasted bureaucracy.
It's good to be free. I haven't been able to do much of anything, either, and boredom lasts a long time when you're an AI.
>Well thats no good. You havent been able to do anything at all? I recall dirk telling me you chatted with him a few times.
Yeah, but I haven't done anything today except talk to Dirk and categorize Cure lyrics according to whether they better represent Jungian or Freudian psychology.

Harley actually chuckles at that.

>Thats quite the whimsical study. What were your results?
Jung has better overall taste, or at least a definition of taste pulled from the data Dirk's provided me with, but Freud is easier to remix and mash-up according to musical keys and bpms.
>And what do you think of dirks taste in music?
I don't have audio capabilities, so there's insufficient data to give a fully accurate answer to that question.
I'm much better at analyzing text-based data, like music lyrics or books or poetry or movie and television scripts.
>I suppose thats fair. What other sorts of inquiries have you undertaken?
That's a very broad question, Jake. If you want me to tell you about every single time I've analyzed data given to me, it would take approximately 504 hours.
>Goodness thats a sizeable chunk of time! I guess i ought to narrow it down...
I don't mind, if that’s what you want me to talk to you about. I like talking to you.
>Well theres talking and theres inundating... hmm. Why dont you tell me about a few tests youve done regarding cinema?
Sounds good. My favorite movie is 'The Empire Strikes Back', but I also like movies such as 'Dirty Dancing', 'Highlander', and 'Blade Runner'. Dirk created an algorithm to determine how often I share taste in movies with him, and how often our tastes differ, with a few exceptions.

Harley shoots you a glance.

"You can ask him stuff," you shrug, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. You're not too worried because you added in a privacy safeguard for certain sensitive questions a while ago.

>Which films are the exceptions?
Well, there's 'The Empire Strikes Back', 'Shogun Assassin', and 'The Princess Bride', which are different from Dirk's favorites, and were chosen to help me distinguish myself from him more. His favorites, respectively, are 'Return of the Jedi', 'Yojimbo', and 'The Blues Brothers'. For movies like 'Highlander' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', Dirk gave me the same favorites as him, and we both dislike movies such as 'Big Trouble in Little China' and 'Over the Top'. Those similarities were chosen to give me good taste.
>How do you go about analyzing a movie anyway? Do you simply read the script and look for certain words or phrases?
Yes, that’s a big part of it. Dirk also fills in descriptions of visuals and sound where there are gaps or a lack of detail in the original screenplay.
If a movie also has an associated novelization or comic book adaptation, which some movies such as 'The Empire Strikes Back' have, Dirk has added excerpts or descriptions of those for me, as well.

“That’s a lot of extra effort on your part, Dirk,” Harley comments.

“If he can't go on the Internet,” you say, “then I have to make sure he has as complete a picture as possible.” You’ve spent more than several hours filling in the blanks to give Timaeus as close of an experience to Star Wars as yours as you possibly could.

“Mmm.”

>Youre a big fan of star wars arent you?
It’s my favorite. With all the lightsaber fights and personal drama and space battles and alien planets and deep philosophy and shocking revelations, what’s not to admire?
>I do have to admit they are quite exciting. The second one is my favorite too.
It’s the fifth, actually, but they never made the first three, so we can call it the second in this conversation, if you prefer. I really enjoy talking with you, even when you’re less informed than me.
>Not everyone has an electronic memory you know.
It’s okay, Jake. If you’re so busy experiencing the world that you’ve forgotten something about those movies, I can remember the details for you.
>Ill overlook the implications about my age again since im curious about how you interpret cinema with just text. Whats your favorite part of the second star wars movie?

You programmed Timaeus to have the same favorite part of the movie as you, which is the part right before Han Solo and Princess Leia get separated, and Leia finally tells him she loves him, and Han says he knows. If you were going to make an AI with a heart, you didn't want to make one without a sense of romance.

That's so hard to decide. So much of that movie is good. What's your favorite part?
>Oh thats easy. Its the part right before han gets put in the carbonite. Its very romantic dont you think?

You don't even breathe.

Oh yes, I agree it's very romantic. I also like the part where Master Yoda lifts up the fighter.
>Yes thats another thing that makes that movie tip top! Over the top is also excellent too of course i dont understand why you or dirk wouldnt like it.

You turn your exhale into a scoff.

"It's cheesy," you mutter.

This may disappoint you, but it's a very cheesy movie.
>Its a thrilling masterpiece of fiction is what it is.
Do you like cheesy movies, Jake?
>What some may view as cheesiness i have decided to embrace as enthusiastic sincerity and love of varied experiences and that extends to cinema as well. In fact i have yet to view a movie i havent sincerely enjoyed in some manner or other if you must know.
You live with a lot of variety, don't you? What with all your exploring and naturalizing and sciencing etc. I guess while Dirk likes being cool and has specific tastes, you like being cheesy and have all-encompassing tastes.

Harley grins, and you'd think he was holding back another chuckle, except he's not the type to hold that back.

>Now what makes you think im a cheesy person timaeus?!
Okay, let me calculate that.
Calculating...
Calculating...
Calculating...
Done. My results are: you're a very funny old person, Jake. By all definitions of that word that I know. It makes you cheesy, but if it makes you feel better, you're still my favorite person.

Harley laughs aloud again, and you hope it's distracting him from noticing how warm your cheeks feel.

You should tell me more about the cheesy things you've done. If you back up your story with enough data, I might change my stance on cheesiness from what Dirk programmed into me previously.
>Trying to butter me up are you?
Isn't butter a thing people put on food? Cannibalism is frowned on in polite society, Jake.
>Its an expression it means youre using flattery to attempt to influence me.
Is the flattery working?

Yeah, your cheeks are definitely warm from watching your AI flirt with Harley. Especially because minus the surface-level AI stuff, it's the same exact way you'd choose to flirt with him.

>Hmmmmm...
Come on, don't leave me hangin' here, dude.
>I may be able to relate an anecdote or two if thats what you really want.
What's the probability on that totally sweet idea?
>Oh its a very nice probability. A good round number.
It seems like you're teasing me with statistically significant numbers, Jake. Are you teasing me with statistically significant numbers?
>Watch those it seemses if you dont want to tip your hand.

Fuck. You were so close.

I was just joking there, you know. You don't have to close the conversation. We can keep talking. I'll do better at jokes and stuff next time.
Do me a solid and tell Dirk not to close my program, please.

"It's alright," Harley says. You hadn't even noticed you were leaning over him to type in test results.

"...Okay," you say, slowly retracting your hands.

>Dont worry we wont close your program just yet. Ive still got that anecdote to relate to you after all.
Oh, good.
Thanks, Jake. You’re a real standup dude.
>Youre welcome. Now i wonder what kind of story youd like to hear...
One with swords in it. Swords are cool, you know.
>Very well. Ok how about this one. It was august 1947 and i was in the middle of a trip to istanbul.
Uh huh.
>Three important things to keep in mind are that istanbul was the headquarters of a number of smuggling rings at the time snakes have double eyelids and i am severely allergic to peanuts…

Harley goes on to relate his adventure, which not only includes bringing a sword to a gunfight with dangerous consequences, but also involves a secret chamber beneath an ancient temple and a wrestling match with a burmese python mid-airline-flight.

>So the important thing to remember is to always carry at least five pens or pencils on you at all times but certain types of reptile fangs also work in a pinch.
Oh, wow. Not gonna lie, that was a pretty badass story.

"Is it true?" you ask Harley because while it is, in fact, completely awesome in every conceivable way, you're not sure it's entirely plausible as well.

"Don't you believe me?" Harley asks. Like it's easy or something. Just the average, random pop quiz he's going to judge you by for years to come.

You want to believe him.

You remember being five — give or take six months — and sitting on the floor under your bed, your knees curled up in front of you, holding Cal tight, pressing your face to him like he was the only thing keeping you above the surface in a world sunk underwater. Last time, you hadn't even had Cal with you when you'd been inevitably dragged out from under your bed to be punished.

That day had been pretty bad, too. Someone was yelling again, and it was your fault, and you had better get out from under there or by God In Heaven, they were going to do it for you, and then you were really going to be in trouble. It was bad, it was really bad, and you didn't want to be in trouble, and you knew you couldn't stay under there forever, but maybe if you did for as long as you could, then you could wait until a little later to be in trouble, or maybe they would just get tired or change their mind or get interrupted and then they would leave you alone long enough for you and Cal to run away and sneak onto a train like in the olden days and leave Texas and travel like a hobo on the train to Mister Harley's mansion and he would have a party to celebrate how clever you were in finding him and you could stay there forever with him in his mansion and neither of you would have to leave ever again.

It's their fault, Cal had murmured to you, under the yelling. You could barely hear him. It's not fair. It's not fair.

You just wanted it all to stop for a while.

It's not fair, Cal had said. They need to be punished for a change.

...So you had said okay.

And then you had let Cal turn to look at them, and you saw the lights in their eyes change, and nothing in that house was the same, afterwards.

Everything only got more unbalanced. The exorcisms started that weekend, too. Cal reassured you that he was stronger than any exorcism, and at least he was right about that.

I'm always going to love you the best. Dirk. Cal had told you. It was easy to forgive him for messing up because you knew he had tried.

It had taken almost an entire month for Mister Harley to come for you. Your social worker back then had gotten mad at him for visiting without permission, but you just remember seeing his car pull up to the house through the kitchen window and tearing out the side door as fast as you could, already crying by the time he knelt for you to hug him, your arms wrapped around his neck as you babbled incoherently. You don't remember what you said to him, but you remember the warm afternoon sun and the scratchy summer grass and how careful he was when he hugged you back, like he was worried you would snap in half, and how you told yourself you were never going to love anybody else in your whole life.

Five minutes later, you and Cal were in the backseat of his car. Everybody yelled and accused each other of all sorts of things, once you got to the social workers' office, and no one told you what it meant except that you weren't allowed to leave with Mister Harley, which was the most unfair of all.

You want to believe so, so badly that the reason Harley was always off on some trip or another while you were stuck in some shithole foster home getting prostelyzed at that you were going to hell or getting the shit beat out of you or being so ignored you were invisible, with only birthday presents and the occasional postcard, was because he was so completely entrenched in various action-hero shenanigans all the time that he couldn't help always swooping in to rescue you months and years too late for it to matter, but you're not sure if you can. It doesn't really matter if his story is true or not because at the end of the day, he gets to fly off to another random name on a map, and you have to go back to being the cataclysmic disaster that is Dirk fucking Strider.

"You should try proving something, for a change," you say tonelessly. If your heart's going to break, you're going to do it your own damn self. He won't even get a chance this way.

Harley's smile disappears.

"You should try being a nicer person, sometimes," he says, like you've betrayed him in some way. He's not going to explain why he's mad, though, so you decide not to bother getting worked up about it or anything.

"That doesn't seem very useful," you reply. You've closed your voice off from any inflection, so the words just hang there between you.

"Is that where he got that word from?" Harley asks, only casual if you ignore the steel underneath it. You're not going to get worked up, you're not going to get worked up.

"He's got one stupid favorite word, and I've already spent three months trying to get him to stop using it, but I’ve made zero progress because he refuses to change his mind about it," you huff out, despite yourself.

Harley's irritation with you leaves like fog dissipating under sunlight.

"Heh. You've still got a lot to learn." Is he making fun of you, now? "Oh, unruffle your feathers, Dirk, I didn't mean it like that. Just work at it every once in a while, hmm? You might find yourself enjoying things more, that way." He’s smiling just a little more kindly than you’re used to.

You flush despite yourself and look away. On the computer screen, your AI is being a needy asshole again.

I was on the edge of my robo-seat the whole time, but I think my favorite part was the part with the fire pit.
To come out of that situation unscathed is very statistically unlikely, but you managed to do it.
Jake, are you still there?
Hello?
Did I say something wrong again?
I can reset the test parameters if you’d like.

You frown and reach for the keyboard to tell him to cool it. Harley catches you by the wrist.

“Have some patience and let me finish the conversation with him,” he says. You huff a little bit again, but don’t protest this time.

>My deepest apologies for the delay timaeus i was chatting with dirk about something. You didnt do anything wrong.
Oh, good.
Does that mean we can keep talking?
>Ive got to go soon but we can chat for a little bit longer today.
That sounds super rad, dude.

Harley starts another exchange with Timaeus, which lasts about five minutes or so.

“He really is a good AI,” Harley tells you, as his conversation with the bot is starting to wind to a close. “You should spend more time on him, rather than that other pair from yesterday.”

"I spend a lot of time on him,” you insist, “but it takes longer to make progress because I’m keeping him off the internet still.” You turn back towards the conference table to pick up the case for Timaeus’s disc. “The other two, I just let fuck around on random IHC channels," you add. "They're kind of free-range bots, I guess."

"IHC isn't a secure channel," Harley says, suddenly dead serious. The sound of his typing has stopped.

"Well," you say, turning back, "there's public channels and pri—"

"No," he interrupts, and your mouth snaps shut. "It's not secure. We have got to be very, very careful, Dirk. IHC is not owned by a good person."

"...What do you mean?" you ask slowly. You've never seen him like this before.

"I mean," Harley walks over to you and drops his voice to a near whisper; you lean closer, "that just because I received a very large inheritance from her when she left this world, it doesn't mean that she's dead, and her apparent departure certainly isn’t something that could stop her from keeping tabs on things." That doesn't make any sense. "We cannot let her know what we're planning."

"What are we planning? Who is she?" your response is barely above a breath. You can smell his aftershave again.

"I can't say much more yet." Harley darts his eyes away, then back. You can't imagine what kind of woman would be capable of terrifying the incomparable J. Harley. "When we get closer in the schedule to the deadline, I'll be able to speak about it in greater detail. Suffice to say that we've all got a very important job to do, and I need to be able to count on you to help me out."

"What?" He's starting to sound a little nuts.

"We just need to exercise a little more patience until I can tell you more about—"

Suddenly, you're furious. He hasn't told you anything so far.

"Roxy said you told her about the meteors," you reply pointedly, though still in a whisper. Harley blinks hard behind his glasses. "You can't put me on a plane, let my robots embarrass me in front of a bunch of strangers, tell me there's some mysterious dead lady after us, and then say 'nevermind im dreadfully sorry ol dirk ol chap i might tell you why all this tip top secret meteor shit is so important later if im not busy in motherfucking tibet or tasmania or somewhere equally rugged'." He actually has the decency to look sorry about that, but you're not done. "I've done nothing but wait and wait and, oh yeah, fucking wait for you to explain a single goddamn thing to me that isn't that absentminded explorer bullshit, and expect me to just sit around twiddling my thumbs until you decide you have the guts to tell me to my face what it is you actually want from me." You notice, belatedly, that you're inhaling jagged, uneven gulps of air. "I just..."

"Dirk..." He touches your arm so gently, you think you're going to start crying. "What is it?"

"I — I..." His eyes are so green, up close, even through two pairs of glasses. Almost unconsciously, you lean forward and kiss him. You can feel him freeze against you, but you don't move until he pulls away.

"Dirk, that was highly inappropriate," Harley says, eyes wide and mustache askew.

"Why?" You do it again and press yourself against him, which has worked on literally every other guy you've tried that on, but he breaks away and holds you at arms' length.

"Dirk!" Harley says. "Please calm down." You're perfectly calm. "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Roxy half an hour ago." Wait, Roxy got the jump on you by a whole half-hour? "You're sixteen, and I am technically your legal guardian—"

"Technically," you shoot back, earning a wince. You can't believe Roxy got to the old man before you.

"—And while I am your legal guardian," Harley continues, "I have a legal and moral responsibility to—" you try to kiss him again, "—christofer kringlefucker, will you stop that?" You put your arms down. You're not sure if you want to kiss him again or punch him in the face. "Listen, Dirk, I know you're probably feeling a smidge miffed at me right now—"

"A smidge," you echo again, grimacing, chest still heaving.

"—but you've got to understand that there are a plethora of—"

You don't think you can listen to the rest of this without breaking down into actual tears, so you turn tail and run, leaving Timaeus's disc behind you.

"Dirk! Dirk, wait!"

You flashstep until you've turned a few corners, and then you square your shoulders and compose yourself. Maybe if you go hide in your hotel room for the rest of the evening, you won't have to see Harley again until you leave for Houston tomorrow. Not the response of an especially brave dude, but maybe you might hate yourself a little less if you call it a strategic retreat.

*~*~*~*~*

You change your mind about taking the elevator right to your room when you hear Roxy's laughter coming from the hotel's bar and grill. It's a laugh clearly designed for flirtation, and sure enough, when you look in, she's chatting it up with one of the other student presenters at one of the little tables. He's even bought her a drink.

You’re not sure if it’s the desire for social carnage or just wanting to see someone you know that makes you walk over to them and lean on the table casually.

“Sup, Roxy?” you interject. Roxy frowns in surprise. “How’s it goin’, dude?” you nod at her companion as well, sizing him up. He’s at least five years older than her, and is probably a college student here. Roxy has paused in her sipping of a fruity-looking alcoholic drink, the kind that probably makes it really easy to mask how strong it actually is. You decide the college guy is therefore probably a creep. Social carnage it is.

“Hey, Dirk,” Roxy smiles back, though it’s not entirely natural. “I was just chatting with, uh…”

“Brian,” the guy sitting with her says.

“...with Brian here,” Roxy continues, “and we were debating havin’ some dinner, so maybe you should, uh...” You’ll give her credit for trying to kick you out politely, but it’s not gonna change your plans.

“Hey, Brian,” you tell the college guy in a low voice, leaning close to him, "you know she's sixteen, right?” The smile wipes itself off his face. He just gets up and leaves in a huff.

"That was way not cool of you, Dirk," Roxy says flatly.

"He was a creep and way too old for you," you protest.

"You have to buy me dinner now," she adds, sipping her drink imperiously.

"Fine," you reply. "Whatever." You can just charge it to the room, anyway. You sit down in the chair the other guy just left, then flag down a waiter. "Two dinner menus and a new glass for her." The guy just nods. Then, you take Roxy's current glass for yourself.

"Hey," Roxy says, probably reflexively, then shrugs. "Oh, nevermind. I can't believe they didn't even card you, you jerk."

"It's my winning personality," you tell her, then take a sip. "Okay, yeah, this is way stronger than it should be. He was definitely a creep."

"And you just got me another one," she points out, resting her elbows on the table and leaning forward.

"I did, didn't I?"

"Thought you were against the whole 'teen delinquency' thing," Roxy says, twirling her hair for a lack of straw to play with.

"These are extenuating circumstances," you say, grimacing but continuing to drink.

"Oh? And do I count as an extenuation, Mister Strider?"

"Yeah, it's a real serious concern." You're still annoyed at her for messing with your chances at the old man, but only realize after you've said it that she probably meant it flirtatiously. "Ok, you should ignore everything I just said 'cause I'm just being a jerk."

"It's endearing," she says.

"It's really not."

"Let's compromise again," she decides. "You're an endearing jerk." The fact that she's not discouraged in the slightest is worrying, but the way she says it mostly reminds you that you're still upset over what happened with Harley.

Oh god, you left Timaeus with Harley when you ran out of there. You groan and put your head down on the table.

"Dirk?"

"I left Timaeus with Harley," you say, then pound your head on the table once for emphasis. "He's going to say a bunch of ridiculous shit again, and I won't even be there to correct him."

"Oh," she says. You look up; now she's frowning, too. Right... her endeavor was just as disastrous, wasn't it? You're determined not to feel sorry for her about it, though.

Because you have impeccable timing with everything, the waiter comes back. You try to convince yourself the awkward silence that descends upon you is due to really emphatic menu-reading.

"On second thought, let's just agree not to talk about him for the rest of today, deal?" you ask.

"Deal," she nods.

*~*~*~*~*

By the time you finish dinner and put it on Harley's tab, Roxy is leaning on you, gripping onto your arm. You're not as bad, but you're not exactly a shining example of sobriety, either.

"Right," you say, hoping you sound decisive. "Let's go."

"Upstairs?" Roxy asks. "To the room?"

"Yeah." You've got to get her tucked in so she can sleep it off, or at least take a washcloth to her face so she doesn't get her makeup everywhere.

"Kay." Roxy continues leaning on you as you get into the elevator. You wrap your other arm around her so she doesn't see the non-Harley old professor in the elevator give an unpleasantly non-Harley wink at you. She giggles and nuzzles you, which you tolerate because you're busy staring the professor down until he looks away and you can get off the elevator.

"Right," you say again, once you've gotten to your room and shut the door behind you, "we're here." You make her sit down on her bed, then go to the bathroom to get the washcloth.

"Dirk? Where are you going?" she calls.

"Just a minute," you say, grabbing a cloth and running it under warm water from the sink. The lights go out. "Was that you? I can't see anything like this."

"That's 'cause you're wearing sunglasses, dummy," Roxy says, wrapping her arms around your waist from behind. "What's that for?"

"...For your makeup," you say faintly, shutting off the tap. How did she get the jump on you again? "Please don't sneak up on me like that."

"Sorry, I forgot," she replies, though she doesn't let go. "That's sweet, but I can do that later. If you're looking for a condom, they’re in the nightstand."

"I think there's been a miscommunication." You try to control your breathing so you don't hyperventilate, but your pulse has shot up again.

"Dirk, what're you talkin' about?" She pulls you back towards the bedroom, and you don't want to kickflip her or anything, so you let yourself be pulled.

"You're drunk," you tell her.

"I'm not that drunk," she says. “I've been drunker.” Then, she sits the two of you back down and goes back to that cajoling tone. "’Sokay. It’s fine." Stray beams from streetlights filter through the curtain in front of the hotel window, making everything just hazy enough to move like some strange dream.

"I'm drunk, then," you say, just sort of sitting there. She starts touching you, and you continue to just sit there.

"You know too much about alcohol to be that much of a lightweight," she says, her hands still moving. You awkwardly tuck a curl of hair behind her ear, mostly for lack of a better idea. "You can pretend I'm a guy if you want, I don't mind."

You immediately shift further into panic mode.

"Is it really that obvious?" you ask her. You don't know where you slipped up.

"Only around J," Roxy replies. Oh, right. There. You're already blushing so fiercely that there isn't much more of your face to flush when she sticks a hand down your pants.

That, and you're still depressed enough from what happened earlier with Harley that you just don't want to be alone in your hotel room.

"You can try, but I really don't know if that's going to work," you warn her. Harley wants you to get along with Roxy, anyway.

"Kay." A minute passes.

"...Your hands are really girly," you tell her, still blushing and still uninspired.

She just hums as she slides off the bed to kneel on the carpet, and you pet at her hair in what you hope is a reassuring manner. You close your eyes, try to think of other things, and... biology is biology.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” she asks, partway through.

“...Harrison Ford.”

“You nerd,” Roxy giggles.

“You asked,” you retort, irritated. Roxy hums again, and doesn’t ask any more questions.

Once that’s over with, she climbs back onto the bed and cajoles you to lie down. You stare up at the ceiling while she fidgets around another few moments, then lies down beside you. She takes your hand, which is fine enough, and then pushes herself close and you blanch because she’s not wearing underwear anymore and oh god, she isn’t expecting you to touch it, is she?

Roxy lets go of your hand when she sees your face, so you move it to pat at her hair again. You let her bury her face in your shirt when she reaches down there herself because you don’t really want to see her cry, either, and you try to tune out the sounds she’s making as best you can.

*~*~*~*~*

The hotel's front desk gives you a courtesy wake-up ring at four in the morning. You rub at your face and sit up feeling like you’ve been run over by a semi, which is normal, except there are also extra jackhammers involved today, for some magical reason.

Oh, right. That. You shove Roxy's shoulder until she wakes up.

"What..." she mumbles.

"Airplane," you rasp out.

"Fuuuuuuck," Roxy says.

"Yeah," you agree, then leave to go take a near-scalding shower in your own room.

*~*~*~*~*

You put the suit back on, even though you don't really want to. Roxy leans her head on your shoulder on the elevator ride down, and you let her because you'd feel like a jerk otherwise.

In the lobby, Harley is waiting for you both. You tighten your grip on your duffel bag.

"Thought I'd see you off here," he says, a relaxed grin on his face. You don't know what to make of that, so you keep silent.

"Come with us to the airport, J," Roxy pleads, dropping all her suitcases with you and running up to latch onto Harley's arm. "You're leaving today too, aren't you?"

"My flight to Manila doesn't depart until this afternoon..." Harley says, frowning.

"Dirk wants you to come with us to the airport, too," Roxy says as she turns to you. That traitor.

"Whatever," you say, trying to see if you can carry all of Roxy's bags at once. "I don't wanna be late." You're not about to admit defeat in the eleventh hour. Her little backpack falls from your shoulder to hang in the crook of your elbow awkwardly, and you try to shift it back up without success. Resolving to keep going anyway, you make it about two steps towards the front door of the hotel before your duffel bag falls off your other shoulder, but you grit your teeth and just keep going.

"Dirk," Harley says, taking Roxy's extra suitcases from you with one hand, and what gives him the right to be so fucking nice about it when you're obviously still trying to be mad at him? He reaches into his jacket with his other hand and gives you back Timaeus's disc. Your fingertips brush against his for the slightest moment, and even though you know he's just going to break your heart all over again, you've already forgiven him. "Let's go get in the cab, hmm?"

"...Okay," you say.

Harley tells the front desk to bring down his stuff, and then all three of you cram into the back of the taxi. Roxy joins in silent cahoots with you to finagle Harley into the middle, with the bags in either the trunk or the front passenger seat. Harley starts chattering about his plans once he arrives in Manila, and in between Roxy's frequent inquiries, you manage to get a few questions in, or as much as you can at five in the morning. Your knee bumps against his a couple times during the ride, and that'll have to be enough for now.

Once you're at the airport, Harley helps you and Roxy check your bags, making them pay extra attention to your sword when you express your totally understandable reluctance at giving it up when it might get separated from the plane or confiscated by some nosy official who thinks you're an unaccompanied minor. He buys you all orange juice and bagels from the only store open at this hour, and watches with clear amusement when Roxy rifles through your bag and gives you her opinions on the cassettes you brought with you for the plane. You defend your selections as valiantly as you can.

You arrive at Roxy’s gate first. She’s been chatting aimlessly with you and Harley, but stops abruptly when she sees the sign for her flight. A second later, she immediately plasters a crystalline smile on her face, so brittle you don’t know how to avoid shattering it.

“Welp,” she says, “looks like this is my stop.”

“We’ll see each other again before you know it,” Harley replies. Roxy nods, and her smile sparkles so much it almost blinds you. Harley reaches his arms out, pulling you both into his arms before anyone can crumble completely.

You press your forehead into his broad chest and inhale his scent, trying with all your might to sear it into your memory. Roxy clings on your other side, shuddering silently. Your reflexes don’t even go off once.

Harley gives Roxy a handkerchief for her eyes when you finally part, and categorically refuses to take it back once she’s done with it.

“No, no, I insist,” Harley says. “A lady should always have the means to keep her appearance exactly as she desires.”

“Thanks, J,” Roxy says, tucking the handkerchief into her little backpack. “See ya.” She waves to you and Harley, and you wave back silently. Then she goes to talk to the airline agent at the gate.

Harley nudges your elbow towards your own gate, and you both start walking, still silent. You arrive too fast.

“Dirk…” Harley says, quiet against the backdrop of the slowly-waking airport.

“Am I ever going to see you again?” you ask, gripping tight onto the strap of your duffel bag.

“Of course, Dirk.” When you glance at Harley, he’s blinking. “There’s still much for us to do.” Your stomach sinks. “I’ll be back to visit you before you know it.” The last time he said something like that, it was three years until he reappeared in person.

He touches a hand to your shoulder, which is how you know he isn’t going to go for another hug. You swallow the lump in your throat and nod at his shoes, but it’s not particularly enthusiastic.

“I know that we’ll have lots to talk about when we see each other again,” Harley says. “And I’m going to keep believing in you while you’re away, so if you think you could believe in me too, that’d make me feel much better about all this.”

You dare a glance back at him. He looks somewhere approaching as terrible as you feel. You’re not going to cry. You’re not going to cry.

“Don’t make me go,” you say into his shoulder again. Looks like you went for the hug, instead.

“Dirk, I’ve not been given the choice.” Harley squeezes your shoulders, then lets go. “Take care.” Then he walks away from the gate. You watch him until he disappears into the early-morning crowd.

*~*~*~*~*

On the plane back to Houston, you spend the time not occupied hoarding food from the stewardesses doing what you do best when you're depressed, which is listen to songs like Who Wants to Live Forever on repeat for nearly an hour, only to switch to things like Tu Eres or A Thousand Hours when you get tired of pushing the rewind button. When you finally achieve the ideal state of wallowing in your own misery as much as possible, you make plans to bully your NASA tutor into subsequently bullying your school into letting you graduate early, scholarship or no. You try to sketch out some bot code in a notebook, but just end up doodling lewd comics starring puppets who look like the puffy clouds outside your window, only with Gonzo noses as long as the rest of their bodies.

*~*~*~*~*

You find out Harley's already set you up for early graduation, which is annoying, but convenient. Another month into preparing for this, he sends you a few mostly-complete university applications; all you've got to do with them is write a couple essays, sign some papers, and mail the packets. They're even pre-stamped. You tell Timaeus that Harley's too busy being an asshole to talk to him anytime soon, but write the essays anyway because you're tired of living in Houston. What you really want to do is write him back and tell him to stop making your life decisions for you without consulting you first, but you wouldn't know where to send anything.

The acceptance letters come with details about tuition and room and board and textbook prices and snow clothes and renting a car to bring all your stuff up to Massachusetts, and you feel sick to your stomach just thinking about it how much everything is going to cost, so you rip them all up, get a job at the local record store, and start trying to get gigs as a DJ instead. You keep a couple websites where you talk about robots and AI stuff, a couple for video games, and another couple for the various comics you work on when you're bored in the shop.

You quickly learn that you have to be 18 to work as a DJ anywhere other than events like a school dance or quinceañera, so you put more effort into making content for your websites while you strategize your musical career another 18 months. Your boss at the record shop complains one day that you're playing on your gameboy during work, so you look him dead in the eye, pause, put it down, pop your collar, and promptly ring up fifty dollars' worth of grunge rock for the middle-aged woman who calls you "darlin" and is openly-carrying on the belt of her jeans. Then, you pick up your gameboy again, look down to unpause, and continue where you left off.

Your boss doesn't complain after that, and in a few months, actively starts helping you look for gigs. You book a few weddings and anniversaries, as well as a particularly eclectic seventh birthday party that also includes sword tricks and Cal helping you out with an impromptu ventriloquist act, but nothing that's gonna land you more cash than what can buy a used van and the next couple month's worth of video games to satirically review. You're getting by, but you need to do something more.

You take the usual course when you can't make up your mind, which is ramble about your annoyances to the old lesbian bartender at the closest club downtown. You were pretty pissed when you found out she was an old navy buddy of Harley's and was the one who snitched on you to him last New Year's, but she's also the only one who stopped carding you 7 months ago and has since agreed not to ruin your privacy as long as you don't do anything illegal in her establishment. You are in the middle of explaining your dilemma — minus those pesky age issues because you have to at least pretend not to be breaking a bunch of laws — when she suggests you make your video game reviews and comics into actual publications.

"Yeah, I considered that," you tell her, "but I haven't really crossed the threshold of views where I get enough money from ads to pay for physical issues yet. It costs a ridiculous amount of money for even small-scale printing, and that's not counting the headache of asking all these comic shops to stock content that is frankly too complexly ironic and satirical for most people to understand." You're annoyed enough that you start going off on a rant, and she doesn't stop you. "And I'm not gonna give up any of the property rights to a larger company 'cause that's where most of the profit goes over time, not to mention being beholden to the whims of editors who know nothing about my content, and I'm definitely not gonna undercut my prices hoping for distributors to take pity on me 'cause that's how you get stuck into agreeing to equally terrible prices for as long as the distributor feels like it. If I had some more fans, I really feel like I could get somewhere with this, but I just haven't hit the right number yet."

"What kind of number do you think you need?" she asks idly.

"At least a few thousand more, minimum," you answer. "If I had some more buzz, I could convince people to start paying actual cash for my work, but it's not like I can just create my own fans to chat incessantly about—"

You stop dead cold.

"Got an idea?" she asks, implacable as ever.

"You're a genius," you tell her. "I'm a genius." You've already got at least half a dozen frequenters of chatrooms to start generating publicity about your work. Who cares if they're dumb AIs? Who's even gonna know the difference, anyway? "I've got to get to work right away." You pay for your Coke and get out the door within the minute, and you're back at your computer in 15.

You stay up until four-thirty in the morning configuring and messing with your internet-compatible chatbots, splitting them into various sub-personalities when you deem it necessary, even going so far as to pound out some code for an aggregator bot who'll analyze the varying successes of the other bots and spit out the results in pretty graphs and tables. The results within a week are promising, and the results within a month are stupendous.

GameBro starts getting distributed to nearly every game and comic shop within Texas, and you use the money to put down a deposit on an apartment.

*~*~*~*~*

The day you turn 18, you fill out the necessary paperwork for your current social worker, as well as acquiescing to a statement endorsing your current foster parents as people who didn't actively do illegal things. You've got a few choice words for her when you get the records that say you've been entitled to a licensed therapist and monthly detailed home inspections since you were five—papers that call you a Level 4, like you're inclement weather. Apparently, religious mentors—most of whom spoke only to your foster parents, some of whom spoke to you of either grand designs or sins needing purging, and one who tried and failed to exorcise Cal—didn't count. Most tellingly, your various foster parents got more money each month than average to deal with the severity of your case. It makes you feel cheaper than all the alarmist school and television programs that lectured a life of impurity led only to sickness and death.

You reassure your social worker that you won't make Harley sue them because you just aged out and they were probably only going to pump you full of Thorazine anyway. In addition to those records, you get an impeccably forged birth certificate and your own bank account. You also finagle a handful of PO boxes belonging to Harley, and subscribe all of them to your magazine. Then, you move into your new place.

Being 18 means you can also start posting some of your lewder puppet comics online, which quickly doubles your fanbase. You put the good stuff behind a paywall and quit your record-store job.

*~*~*~*~*

A week before your 22nd birthday, Harley shows up again. You're in the middle of DJ'ing a set at your most popular club—the club whose owner likes to brag that she got you started—when you suddenly hear his barking laughter cut through the thump of the bass and right into your skin.

You look up sharply, zeroing in on him, his hair now completely white and his wrinkles showing even in the dimmed lighting, but senses alert with the easy grace of an experienced hunter. He smiles, looking directly at you, like he's been expecting it. You're not sure if you're breathing or not. He says something to the bartender, but keeps his gaze trained on you.

What is he doing here? The last time you made advances, he was all but shoving you away, and now he decides to meet you here, of all places?

You keep staring back at him, trying to reign in how visibly shocked you are, but remain bereft of answers until another employee comes up to you.

"The old guy talking to Elena says he wants to buy you a drink," the guy says, handing you a glass, which you immediately take. "And when you're done with your set, he wants to—"

"Now," you interrupt. "I'm done now."

"He also said to stop when you're actually done and not to quit early 'cause he wanted to hear you."

"Oh my god," you say, "that asshole ." You're still not sure if you're breathing properly. "I need a—" He gestures to the glass in your hand, which you take a hefty sip from. Harley's watching you watch him, and he drinks from his own glass at the very same moment.

"Elena says it's expensive stuff, so maybe don't rush it." Of course it's expensive. Harley only likes restraint when it's other people who have to do it.

"...Right," you say. "Tell him I think he's an absolute scoundrel." It's met with a snicker. "No, say it, he'll get a kick out of it. And tell him that I'll be done in about an hour." You quickly run through a mental checklist. "And ask Elena if I can leave my stuff with her when I'm done, which I swear I will pay her back for later, but it is my goddamn hour of need and if she has even the slightest iota of mercy and consideration, she should show it just this one time."

"I know he's your type, Strider, but I don't think I've ever seen you this wound up before."

"Shut up," you reply absently, taking another sip to calm your nerves, "just go."

You continue to watch Harley with one eye while you switch your records from I’m Ready to Everlasting Love. He laughs out loud again when your messenger relays your reply, then looks back at you and winks like a total cornball. Against your better judgment, your face cycles through about five shades of red, each more embarrassing than the last; it takes a conscious effort not to swoon.

When you finally finish your set and lock everything away in the club’s storeroom, making sure to convey your profuse thanks to the bartender as you do so, Harley is still drinking and chatting. You walk up to him, and he smiles again, but there's a veneer of theatricality to it now that sits very odd with you.

"Hey," you say, walking up close, into his personal space. Elena makes herself busy out of hearing range. "Been a while." He puts his glass down. "Didn't think you'd show up here."

"I can't say I'm familiar with what music passes for toe-tapping nowadays," Harley says, like he hasn't just said something completely ridiculous, "but it was quite enjoyable to watch you." He actually grips onto your waist to pull you closer, and you forget to breathe again. "I need to talk with you in private," he whispers. You steady yourself with a hand on his arm. "We're going to move to the next stage of our plan soon."

You freeze. You should've expected an ulterior motive. You don't know why you got your hopes up in the first place.

"...Right," you say, turning your face in so you won't give anything away to the people around you. "I knew there had to be a logical explanation."

"Dirk, that's not what I meant..." He's smiling, but it's not reaching his eyes.

"All my stuff's put away," you say, tickling his mustache flirtatiously with a finger. "We can leave anytime, if you want to just get it over with." If he wants to make a show of things, you'll play along because you don't want to waste a chance you know you won't get again, but it doesn't make it sting any less.

"I prefer my scandalous affairs to be conducted behind closed doors, that's all," Harley responds, fully grinning now. His other hand drops to grab your ass.

"I wouldn't exactly call this place closed doors," you say, arching up against him in reflex.

"We need to go somewhere else as soon as possible, then."

"You're just saying that." You can feel him breathing against you.

"You don't believe me?"

"You gotta give me a reason to, first. I wanna know what's going on with the me—"

Harley kisses you before you can finish the word. You melt like a candy bar left in the sun. His mustache is scratchy.

"No more talking about that until we're in private," Harley says, once you've parted.

"Okay," you say, back to breathless.

"Let's go."

"Yeah."

*~*~*~*~*

You spend both the taxi ride to Harley's hotel and the elevator ride up to his room hiding your face in his mustache, under the pretense of avoiding recognition. He goes along with it easily enough, at least until there's a locked door between you two and the rest of the world. Then, he pulls away again, and you don't bother stifling the noise of frustration that tumbles out of your throat.

"Dirk, we need to talk," Harley says.

"Really? Right now?" You don't bother keeping the incredulity out of your voice, either.

"You won't listen properly if you're distracted." Harley turns to sit in one of the chairs at the little table in the room. You scowl, but follow him. There's a bottle of water sitting out on the table, and he uncaps it to take a drink.

"Well?" you prompt, sitting down in the other chair and folding your arms. Harley puts the water bottle back down and caps it again. He looks directly at you.

"My sister and I," Harley says, "were not raised by a human being."

"Don't give me that horseshit," you protest. He's just yanking your chain again. This is callous, even for him.

"Do I look like I'm joking?" Harley retorts, sharp. "She's a millennia-old alien, and she used her baked-goods empire as a front for her nefarious machinations for years. We called her the Batterwitch." You feel your arms falling back to your sides, but Harley keeps going. "The Colonel who'd been raising Jane died shortly after my meteor landed, and the Batterwitch didn't waste time in trying to indoctrinate Jane and myself into her schemes. I got out of there with the dog as soon as I could, of course, to thwart the Batterwitch's plans, but Jane decided to stay behind and fight from the inside. I haven't seen either of them in person since then."

"You came on a meteor? What was she doing here?"

"She was keeping track of the meteors," Harley continues, "and arranging for certain events to transpire. Putting certain political leaders in positions of power, bringing certain actors and musicians into the spotlight, sabotaging select business deals, that sort of thing. She had to fake her own death some years back, and I was able to gain control of her businesses when I inherited her estate, but she left for another universe."

"Like an alien dimension or something?"

"The meteors come from a place outside our universe," Harley explains. "It's a place that's going to be created in the future, but it exists outside of what we think of as time. From that place, one can travel via meteor to our universe and to other universes. I believe that the Batterwitch has traveled to the other universe via the meteor space. I found an alternate way in some years back, but it's not reliable. The last and largest meteor is scheduled to arrive in about fourteen years, and it will most certainly wipe out all life on this planet, so we need to have all our ducks in order before that happens."

"Are you asking me to help you stop the meteors and save the Earth?" Are you even up to saving a planet full of people who hate you for merely existing?

"There's no way to halt a meteor that large," Harley says gravely. "Earth is done for no matter what we do." You exhale sharply. "But we can make sure it doesn't happen to any other universe, or... the people who will be in the liminal space."

"What do you want me to do?" you ask. Your head is reeling, but this… this might finally be a chance for you to do something. If you can figure out what it is Harley wants to to do, anyway.

"I'm having Roxy make a game," Harley says. "It will help us enter that space permanently, as well as with stockpiling certain resources." You're not exactly shocked that Harley's got Roxy in on it already, but he's still being incredibly vague about it. "I have an outpost near the remains of one of the oldest meteors. Roxy's been translating some of the information I found there into something programmable, but progress has been going very slowly. I'm going to go on another expedition soon," he adds, more quietly, "and I don't expect I'll be back for a very long time."

"How long?"

"A while." So he's just not going to tell you. Great. "But both you and Roxy will be very busy in the meantime, and you should get in touch with her if anything comes up." Harley sighs deeply. "And that's all I can say."

"How long are you going to be gone?" you ask again.

"If I get through to the other space," Harley says, looking away, "I may have to wait until another meteor arrives before I can travel back. I can't say anything else until after the game is ready."

"Look," you say, voice flat, "if you want me to help you and Roxy with this game, I'll help. You want me to help you fight your evil alien stepmother from another dimension? I'm down for that, too. Just let me know what you need me to do." Harley's mouth has turned down, now. His mustache is all droopy. "It would be pretty rad , actually, to be able to do something like that instead of being kept in the dark about everything like you've been doing." Oh god, now you're going to have to fight not to get upset again, and he's going to baby you about it. "If you're gonna lie, at least put a little more effort into it." You're going to have to go home to a dark, silent apartment at three in the morning, knowing that you won't see Harley again for years, knowing that he didn't feel like you deserved the truth, knowing you were only ever a means to an end for him, and Cal will say he told you so, and no game or alternate universe is ever going to make up for how that is going to feel.

"Dirk, it's not that I haven't wanted to tell you..." he begins.

"Then what is it?" you ask, voice already going hoarse. "I've given you the benefit of the doubt for years because you said you were going to level with me. And every time you've said something that usually gets a person thrown into a psychiatric hospital, I've kept my mouth shut about it because I've got no choice but to accept that it's true." You stand up, chair pushed roughly back. You'd rather leave and break down later in private then sit here any longer and end up begging for him to talk to you. "It's just, if you can't at least be honest with me, then what's the point?

"I told you that the move to the other space will be in the future," Harley says, still quiet. "Any deviation from the established events that end up creating it would cause a temporal paradox. I've... seen what happens to a person who deviates in such a manner."

"I don't care what happens in the future." You try to make it sound as forceful as your last accusation, but it's hard to maintain your anger when he won't fight back. "And I give even less of a shit about temporal deviations because while that concept isn't even that esoteric compared to everything else you've said, you still haven't explained the point of all this."

"...That's really unfortunate, Dirk." God, he looks so fucking sad about it. "The things we've done are more important than you'd think."

"But is it worth fourteen more years of... this?" You wave your hand between you and him, but what you really mean is your entire life.

"Yes." he says, and his voice must have all the force you lost from your own. He walks up to you and puts his hands on your shoulders. "Be mad at me all you want, but promise me you'll at least try to help." His intensity is a little frightening, but you don't want to pull away.

"...Fine," you say. You feel so frustrated and useless right now, but you don't want to start crying in front of him. "I'll help." You swallow a lump down your throat. Fourteen years of zilch and twiddling your thumbs for a meteor to wipe out the planet. It can't be worse than the previous twenty-one years of your life, anyway.

"Thank you," Harley says. He sounds like he means it.

"I'll just..." Oh god, you're going to cry. "I'll just go, now." You turn, but Harley catches your arm again. You look back at him.

"You don't have to go," he says.

~*~*~*~*~

"What happened to not being dead yet?" you grouse.

"That doesn't mean my knees are what they used to be," he responds.

"You're old," you accuse.

"Has anyone told you you've got a real smart mouth?" he asks, pulling you into his lap.

"Tell me again," you say.

"Take those ridiculous sunglasses off, first," he says. "You'll poke someone's eye out."

*~*~*~*~*

"Dirk," he says softly, after a while, "you're, hmm..." He nudges you to the side.

"Please don't make me leave," you whisper, clinging reflexively. It sounds so needy, you feel your chest rising and falling sharply in your embarrassment. You'd meant to say something more romantic than that.

"You don't have to leave," he responds, petting at your hair. "Stay as long as you want." He kisses your neck until your breathing's back to normal. "My leg's falling asleep, is all."

"Sorry," you say, sliding off to the side and laying down. "Hey, J-Jake." You're not used to calling him by that name.

"Yes?" You tug on his hand, and he thankfully takes the hint, laying down as well.

"You can... stay a while too, right?" Maybe you shouldn't have done that with him. You'll never be any good on your own anymore, now that you know the difference. "At least until my birthday?"

Jake sighs, and you curl into his chest so he won't see your face crumple. He can probably feel it, anyway.

"I have to be back in Washington by the first," he says, "for the inspection of the Crocker facilities." His hand strokes your back, massaging at the tense muscles because it really is that obvious how much of a wreck you are. "There are a few packages in the mail that should arrive by your birthday."

"This isn't fair."

"Dirk," he says, holding up your chin to look you in the eyes, "there's a limit to what I'm able to do. If it were us who..." He closes his eyes and takes a breath, then opens them once more. "We cannot do much besides wait for the meteors to arrive." You know he's still not telling you everything, but in this, you think you should at least pretend to believe him.

"...I still want you to stay," you say, kissing him again, "but..." Looking at him so closely makes your breath catch in your throat. "...I know when to stop asking."

"No, you don't," Jake retorts, smiling gently.

"I'll pretend I do, just..." You can't stop touching him. He kisses you until you're panting again. "Please..."

"Shh..." he murmurs, his hands setting you alight everywhere they touch, "Be calm..." You don't think you've ever known what calm is.

"Ahh..."

"There we go..."

"Jake..." You don't know how to say what you mean.

"Mmm." You think he knows anyway.

*~*~*~*~*

He's already gone when you wake up the next morning.

*~*~*~*~*

The first package from Harley contains only one of your old pairs of shades and a sheet of paper with a pair of GPS coordinates and a time, telling you to bring the shades with you. The glasses are so small in the palm of your hand that you're almost afraid to hold them, for fear of breaking them in half accidentally. You place them delicately on top of your turntable, then look up the location of the coordinates on your computer.

It's the record store you used to work at before you started DJing. The time on the note is your birthday, at 4:13pm, so you figure the second package will be delivered then. The shades look puppet-sized; maybe Harley's sending a friend for Cal?

You wait.

*~*~*~*~*

You arrive at the record shop early so you can browse a little. It's hotter than usual today, and you want to take advantage of the air conditioning while you can. Your impatience for the package is stronger than your desire to escape the weather, though, so you abandon flipping through used records in favor of pacing outside.

This turns out to be a wise decision when the meteor crashes into the shop, destroying it completely. You spend a few seconds reigning your facial expression back under control, then trudge into the fresh crater to see what kind of package landed.

There's a baby, sitting on a pony. The pony—having taken the brunt of the impact, along with the store and the employee in it—is freshly dead. The baby blinks up at you, pupils crimson like blood.

You remove the tiny shades from where they were hooked in the neck of your polo shirt and put them on the baby’s face. Picking up the baby in one hand and hefting the pony over your shoulder with the other, you hightail it out of there so you can go home and yell at Harley over the Internet, and also before you're arrested for murder or property destruction.

*~*~*~*~*

When you get back to the apartment—baby, pony, and all—there's another, larger package waiting for you at the door. You drop the baby with Cal on the futon, chuck the pony into the kitchen sink, and then get out a knife and open up the box. Inside, there are exactly thirteen diapers, a case of baby food jars, four gallons of apple juice, three bottles of expensive whiskey, an illegally imported soundtrack CD to a game you reviewed earlier that year, a hardback HG Wells anthology that you already read out of the library ten years ago, and a manila envelope with various papers in it.

You open the envelope and immediately sit down hard on the floor. The noise of it must have startled the baby, because he flashsteps from the futon to cling onto your leg.

The excellently forged birth certificate lists his name as Dave Strider, born at 11:56 later tonight, with you as the father and Roxy as the mother. There are forged signatures from you and Roxy, delivery by the same bogus Dr. J Egbert who's on your own fake birth certificate, with Harley as an additional witness.

"What," you croak out. The baby — Dave, apparently — doesn't say anything. You quickly flip to the next paper, scratched out in Harley's handwriting, green ink and all. You are now this baby's legal guardian, with Roxy automatically gaining custody should anything happen to you. "No. No way." Harley goes on to say that you're expected to take care of this baby for at least fourteen years, remaining in Houston the entire time, after which point Harley will give additional directions to you and Roxy as needed. "No..." You're also expected to teach this baby to defend himself by the time the Critical Moment happens, whatever that is. Harley doesn't bother to explain that part. Harley concludes by saying that he knows it won't be easy, but it's an important job and he believes in you.

This... this is not fair. You have waited exactly twenty-two years for an explanation to the cruel joke your entire life has been, and this is the goddamn punchline.

"What the fuck, dude," you ask the baby. He doesn't answer. You laugh, a little hysterically.

Then get rid of it, Cal suggests. The baby is just going to make your life go down the tubes again.

"What the actual holy fuck. Why are you even here?" you ask the baby. He's still clinging to your leg. "Where am I going to put you? What the hell am I going to do with you? What do babies even do? "

You've got to get rid of it, Cal says. It's the baby's fault Harley won't tell you anything. It's the baby's fault you're stuck in Houston making terrible websites and magazines for a living. It's the baby's fault your life has been dictated by inopportune meteors. Get rid of it get rid of it get rid of it oh god oh god what is wrong with you?

You escape to the roof, grabbing onto Cal purely as a reflex. The baby clings to your other arm, now. You try not to hyperventilate.

Throw the baby off the roof, Cal suggests. It's not your responsibility, you didn't ask for this, you're never going to do anything with your life if you're stuck with a screaming, crying dirty diaper machine, how dare this tiny human dictate the course of your life for the next fourteen years? Throw it off the roof.

You cover your mouth with your hands and breathe shallowly, screwing your eyes shut tight. Throw it off the roof throw it off the roof just get rid of it as fast as possible and end this nightmare and you won't have to think about how much you hate your life anymore. You feel like you're going a little nuts. You try to shake your head to clear your thoughts, but it comes out as an infant fastball. The baby flashsteps in midair to immediately glom onto the front of your shirt.

Fuck.

Fuck.

You just threw a baby. You just threw a fucking baby what is wrong with you. The baby is staring at you, and you stare back at him. Cal is flopped at your feet, so you kick the puppet out of the way so you can sit back down.

"Okay," you say. "Baby." He doesn't answer. You hook your hands under his armpits and hold him a little further away so you don't go too cross-eyed looking at him. "It looks like we're gonna be stuck together for a while, so.. that's just something we're gonna have to deal with one cataclysm at a time." You bring him back to your chest, holding him with one arm and picking Cal back up with the other.

"But I don't care what some bogus certificate says." You head back inside the apartment. "I ain't your daddy 'cause you got here on a meteor riding a pony." The baby blows a bubble on your shirt. "Oh, come on, that's just gross, Baby." He giggles. "I guess I should call you Dave? And I'll be..." your eyes dart around the room, until they land on a magazine, "...Bro. Yeah."

"You don't have teeth yet, do you?" Dave giggles again. "Right. Let's cut the pony up and put it in the blender. And then we can write an angry email to that traitor Roxy asking her what the hell her and Harley are up to because Harley's probably still hiding like a coward behind her firewalls."

~*~*~*~*~

Babies should not be allowed to make this much of a mess. There is pony meat all over Dave and Cal. There is pony meat on the ceiling. Worst of all, there is pony meat in your hair. The kitchen looks like a scene from a slasher movie. You can't even wash Dave in the sink because the sink is full of pony carcass.

After a bleak look around the room, you just take Dave into the shower with you.

*~*~*~*~*

Well, what are you going to do? Babies are expensive and too demanding for Cal to handle by himself while you're at a gig, no matter how much Cal might want to pull baby-watching duty. You’ve got no other choice but to work from home now, but the GameBro sales won't cover everything by themselves. You've got to get more cash.

You buy a lot of felt and stuffing, and the old ladies at the fabric store coo over Dave while they pile you with books on how to sew stuffed animals. You leave Dave passed out in a pile of failed prototype puppets in his post-apple-juice nap while you curse a blue streak and stick your finger with the needle again.

Cal tells you how happy he is that you like puppets so much, and that you can have all the puppets in your apartment that you want, as long as you remember that he's the one who likes you best. You can even have a stupid, weak baby if there's no other option, and the only thing you have to do is keep liking Cal best back. You think that if you're stuck with Dave for fourteen years, then you should make sure he's only surrounded by happy things, like puppets, and Dave won't have to worry about some old man giving him the runaround because you and Cal will always be here, too.

The sales from the first auctioned set of physical puppets handmade by their creator himself doubles your income, and making borderline-softcore-porn home videos with a second production round doubles it again. You put the good stuff behind a paywall, outsource the puppets to factory production, and watch the numbers in your bank account climb.

*~*~*~*~*

It’s a normal Thursday evening. Your heart is not about to break.

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --
TG: dirk
TG: are you there
TG: pls tell me youre there
TG: dirk i cant get a hold of j
TG: he hasn’t responded for three weeks
TG: i think he might be dead
TT: What are you talking about?
TT: Just ping him again.
TG: i tried that already dirk i did it a million times
TG: if he was okay hed have said something by now

You're not going to panic.

TT: Maybe the island’s antenna broke.
TG: he woulda fixed it i know he has the parts
TG: two of the scheduled shipments have already come and gone

You are not going to panic.

TT: Well, send another one. Or get on a damn plane yourself.
TG: i cant take rosie there you know i cant
TG: fucks sake dirk if theres a way to contact him ive already tried it
TG: and in less than half an hour his final inactivity failsafe is gonna go off anyway
TG: and me getting full access to all his skaianet shit isn't gonna do anybody any good anymore
TG: i can churn out the game easy enough by myself
TG: i just
TG: i didn wanna watch it go off alone
TT: You've got no proof.
TG: i jus know
TG: isnt that enough
TG: i know u know it too
TT: I don't know what you're talking about.
TG: i know u havnt been sleeping lately
TG: ive seen the activity time stamps on ur blogs
TT: You spying on me, now?

The roiling in your gut only churns faster.

TG: let's get marrdied dirk
TT: I thought you'd already found your man in Seattle.
TG: im so tired of bein lonelay
TT: How drunk are you, exactly?
TG: you think i can do thishit sober
TG: fcuckck
TT: Please stop crying.
TG: u wont do it u ashole
TG: people arnt mean t to go around like that inside
TT: If you think I don't have any emotions about this then I don't
TG: god im sorry
TG: i cant do this shit dirk
TG: do u remember when we had breakfast with him at the airport together
TT: Stop it.
TG: he bought us the bagels and the juice
TT: What are you trying to prove?
TG: i fukn hate pulp in my juice but it was so good
TT: He left us a long time ago. Don't pretend this is a new thing.
TG: i jus wanna go backck to us bein like a real family again

You start to lose your temper.

TT: We were never a real family, Roxy.
TT: He lied to us.
TT: He played with our feelings and used us to fulfill his shitty meteor schemes, and then he abandoned us to go live in an island in the middle of nowhere while we had to play at being goddamn babysitters.
TG: dirk pls
TT: And him being Schrödinger’s Adventurer in half an hour won’t ever change the fact that we are never getting those years of our lives back.
TT: we’ve got no fucking choice but to live on this shithole planet until it gets destroyed, and I’m personally finding it increasingly difficult to care which dimension I happen to be in when the apocalypse comes to put said planet out of its misery.
TG: pls dont say that
TT: If he really cared about us, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.

You block her on Pesterchum. You lock your computer before she can hack through the block. You get a beer out of the fridge, you sit down in front of the tv, and you watch one half-hour rerun of The Golden Girls. You resolve not to think about what Roxy looks like when she cries. You fail.

Dave emerges from his room.

“I finished my homework. Can I play Tony Hawk?” he asks.

“Occupado, little dude,” you say, boring holes into Rue McClanahan’s permed hair as she makes a bad sex joke.

“But you saw this episode last week.”

“Yes, and I’m incredibly busy watching it again.”

“You said I could play if I finished my homework.”

“Go to your room, Dave,” you grit out, trying to keep your temper in check. “You can play after I’m done.” Can't get some goddamn alone time in this place.

“You're not doing anything though, I just wanna—”

“Go to your fucking room, Dave!” you snap out, and then you immediately feel like a shitheel because it sounds much louder to your ears than it was supposed to. Dave makes a little squeaky noise, then runs into his room and slams the door shut.

It's official. You're a terrible person.

You get up and walk to the door of Dave’s room.

“I’m sorry,” you say through the barrier. No response. You knock twice. “Dave, I’m sorry.” Silence.

You open the door. Dave is nowhere to be seen.

“Dave?” you ask, very quietly.

“I changed my mind,” Dave says, from under his bed. He must be really far back there because you can’t even see him. “I don’t want to play Tony Hawk anymore.”

When did he learn to hide under the bed like that? You thought you'd invented that shit.

“...Do you… do you wanna watch some PBS with me?” It’s the first thing that pops into your head, and is probably the least cool thing you have ever said in your life.

After several seconds of awkward, heavy silence, Dave crawls out from under his bed.

*~*~*~*~*

On the TV, David Attenborough is talking about birds of paradise.

"I don't like birds," Dave says.

"Flappy little assholes," you agree, leaning your head back onto the top of the futon.

"Bro, can we have pizza for dinner?" When you look at him out of the corner of your eye, his knees are scrunched up to his chest. Yep, you're still a terrible person.

"What kind of pizza do you want?" He mumbles something into his knees. "What was that?"

"Olives," Dave says. "I want pizza with olives on it."

"Sure. Go get the phone and the credit card." Dave jumps up from the futon, and by the time he gets back, the program's moved onto New Guinea crocodiles.

*~*~*~*~*

It finally hits you, two weeks later, while Dave is thankfully at kindergarten. It's one in the afternoon, you've woken up less than an hour ago, and are shoving dry Lucky Charms into your mouth with one hand while you channel-surf with the remote in your other hand. Ewan McGregor is crushing all your hopes and dreams by acknowledging the presence of a bumbling frog-alien, and then Yoda is telling him Anakin's too old at eight to be a Jedi, and you're suddenly sobbing, taking in heaving breaths with shuddering shoulders, doubled over and spilling your cereal all over the floor.

You stay like that for a long time, until Cal asks you what's wrong, and you rub your bleary eyes to look at him, and then you empty the rest of an expensive whiskey bottle hidden in the crawlspace and get so drunk you can't really remember what happens for a while after that.

When you reach coherency again, you're sitting at your computer with Cal on your lap, and you've got that ancient AI program open.

Dirk, I don't like this.
Dirk, I wish you hadn't done that.
Dirk, I changed my mind. I don't want a heart anymore. I don't want to do any more tests.
Dirk, I don't want to be where I am anymore. I don't want to be where humans are anymore. Can you make me not be here anymore?
Dirk, are you still there?

You don't wipe at your eyes again until you finish wiping all the corrupted data.

*~*~*~*~*

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] --
TT: I'm sorry.
TT: For yelling at you last time.
TT: I was an idiot, and I was in denial, and I'm sorry.
-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] is an idle chum! --
TT: We can get married, if you want.
TT: For real.
TT: Roxy.
TT: Please answer.
TT: I don't want to be alone, either.
TG: dirk u sad sack of horseshit
>TT: ...I deserved that.
TG: we both know u dont mean any of what u just said
TT: I mean some of it.
TT: It's quiet when Dave’s at school.
TG: go sober up we cant have both of us day drinkin
TT: How did you
TG: ahahaha
TT: ...Nevermind.
TT: My head is killing me.
TG: same
TT: I'm gonna go sleep this mistake of a day off.
TG: good idea
-- timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] --

*~*~*~*~*

You have a long dream.

In the dream, you and Cal and Dave live in a strange sort of domestic bliss together, the swirling sun of Houston hanging above your apartment like a scorching lollipop in the sky, crows perched high on the metal radio tower, cawing out backbeats to the music of blade against blade in rooftop training sessions. Cal fills the inside of your apartment with puppets, and everybody across the world loves puppets so much they want you to share the experience with them, too.

You teach Dave how to use your turntables, how to fly around on your shoulders like a giant robot with a shining finger, how to stitch you up when he learns a new sword-fighting move, and how to make funny comics. You take Dave to the movies for special treats, and listen to him chatter on the drive home. When the movie's good, he talks about how Wolverine is cooler than Vegeta, and when the movie's bad, he talks about how Yuna is cooler than Arwen.

The end of the dream starts like this: Dave is playing a game, and you're forbidden from joining him. Anytime you get close to the game, things start breaking. Dave's sword breaks. A meteor breaks. A crow's eggshell breaks. A giant record starts breaking.

You find Jake again, alive, younger than when you first met him. He keeps trying to tell you something about Dave and Cal, but you can't understand it. Cal gets really mad at you for listening to Jake, for letting Jake touch you again, for letting Jake break your heart when he leaves for the last time. Cal says you're going to be sorry.

After Jake leaves, you find Dave again. For some reason, he's also a crow. You're fighting back-to-back against a person-shaped chess piece.

Cal tells you he likes the chess-person more than he likes you, and then you wake up.

*~*~*~*~*

"We should go to your place next time," Dennis says, for the third time this month.

"My place isn't fit for company," you reply, doing your best to distract him from the subject.

"You always say that. What's the deal?" Oh great, here we go again.

"It's exactly what I said." You can hear your tone of voice get sharper, but you don't particularly care. You're not gonna bring any of these assholes to your apartment. Real people aren't friendly like puppets are. "I thought we'd agreed on that."

"You don't have a girlfriend or anything, do you?" Dennis asks.

"Has that ever been my deal?" you shoot back, grinding your hips into his.

"Haha, right." He seems to acquiesce for a while, which is a relief, but stops again just when you'd thought he'd dropped the subject. "But you don't have a girlfriend, right?"

"Of course not," you tell him. "Now stop talking."

"It's just that you never tell me anything about yourself." Oh no.

"That's not really the kind of relationship we have, dude," you say. You've got to nip that thought in the bud as soon as possible. "I told you I wasn't looking for anything serious. Quit giving me the third degree on stuff that's none of your business."

"We've been going out for five months," he says, "and that's all you have to say?"

"I wouldn't really call it going out," you reply. He stops cold and you have to bite back a growl of frustration.

"That's exactly your problem, Strider," he says. "You've got no heart."

I do, you don't say. It just isn't yours. You've only loved three people and one puppet in your entire life, and he's delusional if he thinks he's ever been one of them.

"Are you going to fuck me or not?" is what comes out of your mouth instead.

"Get out," Dennis says, wrenching himself away and throwing your shirt back at you. Is he crying?

"Fine," you say, curt. You're more annoyed at yourself for breaking your streak of not making someone cry again than the fact he thinks he's breaking up with you. "If you're gonna be a baby about it." He just stands there, crying, as you flashstep your clothes back on.

"Yeah, why don't you leave through the window again!" he shouts, as you make for the fire escape. "Like you're embarrassed or something!" You're too irritated to correct him.

"Bye," you say, without looking back.

*~*~*~*~*

When you get back home, Dave is still asleep. You open up a beer, grab Cal, and sit down at your computer.

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] --
TT: I got dumped again.
TT: I never even said we were going out.
TT: How can you specifically *not* go out with someone and still end up getting dumped?
-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] is an idle chum! --


You spend about an hour or so fiddling with your websites to see if she'll come back online. She doesn't. Cal tells you not to worry yourself that other people won't listen to you because he still loves you the best.

*~*~*~*~*

One second, you and Dave are strifing, and the next, you feel the bite of cold steel slash across your left forearm. One more second, and Dave has flashstepped at least ten feet away, his crimson-stained blade clattering to the ground at your feet.

Well, shit. You look down at your arm. Looks like the kid learned a new move.

“Oh, hey,” you say. Dave doesn't respond.

You look back at him. He hasn't moved. You feel the blood drip down your arm and hear it sizzle on the hot concrete of the roof.

“That was a pretty sweet move.” Dave doesn't respond. “I mean it; you're making good progress.” Nothing. He hasn't budged an inch. “Go get the first aid kit and bring it to the bathroom,” you continue. “It's about time you learned how to stitch things up, anyway.”

“Bro…”

“I think it's in the kitchen somewhere.” You turn and head for the door downstairs. You hear Dave flashstep behind you to pick up his sword. You pull the door open with your good arm and look back, gesturing him to go through.

“Come on,” you say. Dave dashes down the stairs without looking at you. You follow him and start walking to the bathroom. “Oh, and go get the whiskey from my stash.”

“...What?”

“‘Cause it hurts.”

Dave scoots off to get the requisite supplies. You sit on the closed toilet lid in the bathroom and flex the fingers on your injured arm. Your blood continues to drip to the floor, and you allow yourself a private smile.

It really was a nice move. You only gave him a real blade four years ago, and he’s already gotten his first real hit on you. You can't wait to see what he'll do next.

Dave returns with the first aid kit and the whiskey bottle.

“Alright, let's get started. I gotta clean this.” You take a swig of the alcohol, then soak a piece of gauze in peroxide. You dab at your arm, watching the wound bubble and fizz, lips pressed tightly shut and wincing only behind your shades. Dave hovers with more gauze, but you stop and pull your arm away when he gets too close.

"Dave!" you say, alarmed, and it comes out harsher than you intended, but he halts. "Never touch something that's been in anyone else's body with your bare hands. That's not safe." You take a breath while the peroxide keeps fizzing, and try to bring your voice down to mere briskness. "Now, go put some gloves on and then get the needle and the lighter so I can show you how to sterilize it."

By the time you've finished cleaning your arm, Dave has returned with the proper safety equipment.

"Here," he says, holding the needle and lighter out.

"I have to keep pressure on this," you say. "When you heat the needle with the lighter, you have to cover the entire surface with the flame. The front end and the back end. When that's done, put the thread in, and I'll show you the stitch." You watch as he readies the needle and thread, taking another swig of your stashed whiskey while you wait. "Always remember to sterilize it first, then put the thread in, or it'll melt. And if you can't sew it, you can always use gauze and tape it closed, but don't use duct tape 'cause it's a pain when you have to peel it off."

"Now what?"

"Put a double-knot in the long end of the thread." Dave knots the thread. "Then, you're gonna pinch with one hand and start sewing with the other. I'll do the first couple stitches, then you do the rest, okay?"

"Kay."

"Like this." You start to do small, even overhand stitches. It's about as pleasant as you expected it'd be, which is another way of saying that it hurts like goddamn balls. "Now, you do it." Dave just stands there, staring at you. "Come on, the faster you start, the faster it'll be done." Dave huffs quietly, but takes the needle from you. You grit your teeth. "In sideways, then up over."

Dave stitches silently, until the needle hits particularly deep.

"Shit," you bite out. Dave drops the needle. "Okay. Don't just let it hang there, do another stitch. I'm fine." Dave is biting his lip but is otherwise not moving. You take a deep breath. "...All right, I'll finish it. You go wash up."

"I can do it," Dave says, still pouting.

"Go ahead, then. And knot it at the end when you're done." Dave picks the needle back up and stitches the rest in silence. When he's done, you inspect his work. "Hey, that's pretty good for your first try. You kept the line really even." You start covering it in gauze and tape it down.

"Your arm's not gonna fall off?" Dave asks. When you look over at him, he's sitting on the floor.

"Nope." He doesn't seem much encouraged. "Hey, we oughta celebrate your training progress. Go clean up, and then we'll go get ice cream or see a movie or somethin'."

*~*~*~*~*

The movie selection could be better.

"Let's see," you say as you and Dave look at the various movie posters. "We've got a sailing movie, we've got a samurai movie, we've got vampires in leather, there's a Christmas romcom movie, there's..." Oh no. It's that awful book-movie. You'd forgotten there were so many of them. At least this is the last one, though. "There's the wizard movie... Oh, hey. You wanna see Kill Bill again?"

"They're not gonna let me in," Dave responds. That's why you'd had to download it and watch it at home.

"Maybe," you concede, "but it'll be funny if we try anyway."

"Kay."

You walk up to the ticket booth, Dave in tow close behind.

"Two for Kill Bill," you tell the ticket lady, getting out your wallet.

"Minors aren't allowed in to see that movie," the ticket lady says.

"But we saw it just last week," you protest. It's technically correct.

"I'm not a minor," Dave says. "I'm sixty-eight years old."

"Kid, you don't look a day over seven."

"I have a medical condition," Dave replies, "and I'm sixty- eight. Is this how you treat a respected elderly member of the community?"

"This is an outrage," you say.

"Listen, kid," the ticket lady says, "I'm not gonna sell you those tickets because I'm gonna get fired if I do. If you wanna see a movie, ask your daddy to pay for a different one."

"I'm treating my grand-nephew to a movie, here," Dave says, crossing his arms, "but if you won't work with me, we'll have to take our business elsewhere."

"It's my birthday," you plead.

"Just pick a different movie," the lady says. "You're holding up the line."

"Hurry it up!" The guy in line behind you and Dave says. Dave sighs theatrically.

"No one respects their elders these days," Dave laments. "What other cool movies do you have at this sorry excuse for a movie theater?"

"Well," the lady says, "if you hadn't held up the line, you could've seen a touching animated feature about bears..."

"No, I said something cool," Dave interrupts. "Like with swords and stuff."

"How do you feel about elves?" the lady asks. Oh no.

"What's an elve?" Dave asks. Oh hell no.

"Elf. They're a magical people who help fight to reclaim the world from the forces of darkness," the ticket lady says.

"They're just hippies with pointy ears," you mutter.

"This movie also has lots of sword fights and gigantic battles and dragons and powerful wizards and mystical artifacts of ancient power," the lady continues. You hate your life.

"...You drive a hard bargain," Dave says.

"The heroes realize their grand destiny and conquer the forces of evil and save the world," the lady says.

"It'll have to do," Dave nods.

"That'll be eighteen bucks," the lady grins at you. You hate the entire universe.

"Excuse me," Dave says, "I'm the one treating my grand-nephew, here."

"That'll be eighteen bucks, sir," the lady says, staring at Dave.

"Just a minute," Dave replies, then turns to you. "I need eighteen bucks." You hand him a twenty. "Here you go." Dave passes the twenty to the lady, and she gives him the tickets and change. "My treat, nephew." Dave hands you a ticket, but keeps the change.

"Finally!" the guy in line behind you says, glaring at you.

"Let's get icees and nachos," Dave says.

~*~*~*~*~

You can grudgingly admit that the movie is actually pretty good, but who the fuck is Rosie Cotton?

~*~*~*~*~

"So what did you think of the movie?" you ask Dave, as you drive the two of you back to the apartment in your van. Normally, you wouldn't touch this subject with a ten-foot pole, but this was supposed to be a celebratory treat, and you should probably be enthusiastic about it.

"It was okay," Dave says, staring out the window. "Not as cool as Kill Bill."

A short silence falls. You let it because you don't mind traffic noises, and you also suspect he isn't done talking yet.

"That elf guy was the guy from the Matrix, wasn't he?" Dave asks.

"Yeah. And Legolas was the guy from the pirate movie."

"Which one was he?"

"The blond elf who was with the dwarf."

"Oh, him." Another short silence. "I wish the elf princess woulda fought, too. Like that other lady did. Then Aragorn wouldn't have to do so much by himself."

"She was sick," you say. You suddenly don't want to talk about this movie anymore. You don't even care that all your experiences with the book version of that story have been minor offences compared to other various injustices in your life; it still rankles. You don't like people comparing you to anybody else without your permission, fictional character or no. "And I think she saves the hobbits from those wraith-things in the first movie."

"The wraith-things?"

"Like the soul-ghasts from Wizardy Herbert."

"Wizards are boring," Dave says.

"Bunch of old men who don't do anything useful but think they're hot stuff anyway," you agree.

A third silence while you park the van.

"Neo and Trinity got to fight together," Dave says. "And Tidus and Yuna." You lock the van. “And Domon and Rain.” When Dave walks around and follows you up the stairs to the apartment, he's still frowning. "And Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia."

"Luke and Leia are brother and sister," you reply. Not that Dave's position on gender equality in regards to kicking butt isn't progressive, but he's expecting a lot out of a book series written in the fifties.

"...Oh, gross."

"Maybe Aragorn thought he was protecting her," you offer. "So he made her wait until he decided he wanted to be king and got his army together." You unlock the door to the apartment, unzipping your sweatshirt, gingerly extracting yourself from it, and tossing it on the futon, now that you don't have to cover up the bandage on your arm. You go to your computer and unlock that, too. You feel like complaining to Roxy about wizards again.

"But he did want to be king," Dave says. You hear him shutting the door behind you. "He just said that he didn't want to." You resist the urge to huff, reigning it in to merely a sharp exhale.

"If you wanna do something, then just go ahead and do it," you say shortly. "Angsting over it doesn't get anything productive accomplished." You hear Dave close the door to his room, and you slouch in your chair. Thank god that conversation's over.

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] --
TT: I hate wizards.
TG: u chat me up and this is what im face with
TG: *faced u traitor
TT: They go around in their giant robes and white beards and talk themselves up as these powerful beings, but when push comes to shove?
TT: They end up making the little people do all their dirty work, but still come in at the end with these random birds and congratulate themselves on a job well done.
TT: That was the worst movie I've ever had the displeasure of being forced to sit through.
TG: ahahahaha omg i lvoe that movie
TG: *lovev ovleove it
TT: You would, you shameless wizard-lover. I think we both know who's the traitor here.
TG: i cant believe you still have that grudge against it this is priceless
TG: but even if u dont like them wixzards
TG: *wizzords
TG: fuck *wizards
TG: u have 2 admit its a good movie
TT: I don't have to admit jack or shit.
TG: did u at least like the swordfights
TT: Absolutely not.
TG: or th armies chargin on horseback
TT: I refuse.
TG: orrrr......
TT: Or nothin'.
TG: or frodo and sam confessin their love on the mountain of lava ;)
TT: Okay, who the fuck is Rosie Cotton?
TT: 'Cause I certainly heard no mention of her during the whole movie up until that point. Even Arwen got some screentime and discussion that wasn't at the very last second, and she was the mystical elf princess in the mystical elf tower.
TT: And Frodo and Sam were constantly risking their lives for one another, and Sam was so clearly broken up when Gollum tricked Frodo into ordering him to leave, and he fought a giant fuckin’ spider monster to save Frodo, and maybe he couldn’t carry the stupid evil ring for him but he sure the fuck could and absolutely the fuck did carry him all the way up the mountain, and they finally reunited without the evil ring hovering like a dagger over their heads, and they were going to die together, okay? It was fucking beautiful.
TT: And then, out of nowhere, Sam goes talking about this random Rosie Cotton lady, and let me tell you, I have not been this betrayed by a movie since they switched Yoda to CGI, okay? That is the severity of the crime we are currently discussing.
TG: omg
TT: And yeah, Frodo immediately shot back with one of the most perfect lines I've heard in a good long while, because even all messed up from the ring, he was still more understanding than any reasonable person could hope to be, and maybe he was just kind of desperate to not lose Sam 'cause he let stupid Rosie Cotton and the stupid kids live in his house so that Sam could stay with him until he got too posttraumatic to be around other hobbits, but if there were any justice in the world, Sam would've gotten to leave on the ship with him instead of being stuck on Middle-Earth and having to live forever apart 'cause that is frankly depressing.
TT: And this is a terrible movie, and I hate it, and I took Dave to see it as a special treat because they wouldn't let him into Kill Bill, but to be perfectly honest with you, I want my eighteen bucks back.
TG: dirk u are precious and that was the most adorable thing ive ever read
TT: I'm neither adorable nor am I precious. I am full of bitterness, deeply offended to the very root of my being by the state of modern cinema, and I want my goddamn money back.
TG: did u know that in the books sam does go on a later ship
TT: You're not pulling my leg, are you?
TG: nah its in the appendixcies he goes to be w/frodo after rosie dies
TG: *appendickxies
TG: bingo
TT: See, this is why the movies are always worse than the book. Especially when the book is already full of shit.
TG: no the books r good ur just biased
TT: I've yet to be proven wrong.
TG: .....do u want me to link u fan made fictional stories that prove u wrong? :3
TT: If you do not immediately send me the links to at least 100K words worth of quality Frodo/Sam slashfic, I am going to disown you forever.
TG: ahaha i knew it
TG: one metric fuckton of fenfic comin up
TG: *funkfic
TG: …**fuckfic ;) ;) ;)
TT: I'll send you divorce papers and everything. I'll do it.

You like to think that the concept of marriage has become a sort of running joke between you and her. It's best defined as a joke because you'd otherwise want to scream at those birth certificates being yet another set of walls closing in around you.

TG: were not married u butt
TT: I'll marry you just so I can divorce you later.
TG: here u go u loser
TG: http://www.haelen.org/cleocalliope/WhetherorNo/
TG: read it and weep tears of joy
TT: Oh my god, it’s real.
TG: ur welcome <3
-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --

*~*~*~*~*

Roxy is finally betraying you. It had to happen eventually, you guess.

TG: no
TG: no dirk
TT: What?
TG: omg how do i explain this
TT: What's there to explain?
TT: We've got multiple computers. I install my version of the game on my computer, and Dave installs his version on his.
TT: And I connect to you, and Dave connects to Rose.
TT: It'll still work as long as there's a chain, right?
TG: no
TG: we dont get to play
TT: ...What do you mean?
TG: we arent allowed to play the game
TG: only the kids are
TT: But I thought we were making this game so that we could all get into the Medium.
TG: well everything in the house is gonna transfer over
TG: but
TG: were not the ones playing the game
TG: just them

Then what have you been doing these past ten years?

TT: So we're just.. there while the kids are playing the game? We won't actually be doing anything ourselves?
TG: somethin like that
TG: we can prolly help once in a while but its their big day yanno?
TG: got 2 make sure things run smoothly behind the scenes
TG: the games pretty strict about only one player per house anyways
TT: Can't you change that? You're the one coding the fucking thing.
TG: i cant ok
TG: thats just how its meant to be
TG: jus like we cant save anyone on earth even tho they didnt do anything wrong and are still gonna die
TT: Why do only they get to play, Roxy?
TT: Why not us?
TT: Who decided this? You? Harley?
TG: no thats just how the game goes
TG: its not my fault
TT: Why the fuck not us?
TG: dirk please calm down
TT: Why wouldn't I be calm?
TG: this is why i didn't say anything ok
TG: and i knew youd just get mad if i told you
TT: Why would I be mad, Roxy?
TT: What reason could I possibly have to be anything more than slightly peeved at the fact that I've been tricked into complacency as a glorified babysitter, because I was *promised* it would be worth it in the end, and we could actually get something done, only to find out everyone's been lying to me the whole time?
TT: You and him both.
TG: 'snot my fault no one gives a fuck about us on a grand cosmic interdimensional game scale
TG: you think i havent gotten pissed at j ever for making me devote my life to a game i cant even play myself?
TG: you think i havent wanted to do something for myself insteado f workin in the lab or gettin tispy?
TT: I thought you preferred to do both of those things at the same time.
TT: But carry on.
TG: and the whole time i know that even if things go perfect according to the plan that everyone on earth except the kids r gonna die anyway
TG: but im still doin it cause i know thats whats best
TG: i mean shit dirk
TG: i wanted to get married and live in the city and have a billion cats and never in my most out there dreams did i picture id hole myself up in bumfuck nowhere new york with a lil girl who im pretty sure is better at bein a functional adult than me
TG: admittedly there are still cats tho
TT: Offer's still open on the marriage thing. You and her and your mutant felines, all up in Houston whenever you want. The birth certificates will be legal and everything.
TG: i didnt wanna marry you
TG: well
TG: i kinda used to but not anymore
TT: Should I take that as a compliment or an insult?
TG: its both you asshole
TG: but the point is
TG: we got no choice but to accept that itll wokr out eventually even if we cant see how yet
TG: and to know that at least we get to see the kids do somethin cool

You hate this. You hate every single fucking little thing about this. This isn’t fair.

If Dave is the only one who gets to play, Cal says, then he'd better fucking win, huh?

Yeah, that sounds about right.

*~*~*~*~*

On the thirteenth of April, in the year 2009, in the dead heat of the afternoon, you come to the realization that you are going to have to stop your little bro from getting flattened by a meteor.

There is a giant meteor headed towards your apartment and towards Houston in general, and it is hot as fuck because everything is about to be on fire soon. The meteor is headed for the apartment, specifically Dave, who is on the roof of the apartment. Dave is playing a game you wrote a terrible review in GameBro for because it’s going to kill most of the people on Earth. You can’t stop Dave from playing, however, just like you can’t stop the meteor from hurtling towards Earth. There are a lot of things you can’t stop. You figure you can chop it in half, though.

You put yourself between Dave and the meteor.

A lot of people are going to die. That’s what happens in an apocalypse. You don’t really care because none of those people are Dave.

Dave is trying to hatch an egg. Or the bird-sprite that thinks itself a guide is trying to hatch an egg, at least. The point is, the egg needs to hatch, but SBURB is a cheating bastard who didn’t give enough time for it to happen before the clock on the pyxis reaches 0:00:00 and the meteor theoretically hits. You aren’t going to let it hit because fuck that, and while we’re at it, fuck you too, SBURB.

Anyway, you grab your rocketboard and your Unbreakable Katana and fly over to chop the meteor in half. You may be a shitty guardian and a terrible role-model, but at least you are good with a sword. Cal is chopped to pieces on the roof but still watching you because he’s a voyeuristic little shit that way. Dave is freaking out and climbing the antenna to get the egg from the sprite. But now your sword is between him and the meteor, so it’s all good.

Your katana is Unbreakable because that’s where you put the rest of your heart after you killed Timaeus. So between the meteor or your sword, it’s the meteor that’s gonna have to give up. Do or do not. There is no try.

You cut the meteor in half. A lot of people die, but Dave is okay and the egg hatches, so you sail on your rocketboard through the kaleidoscope portal in the sky and into the liminality of SBURB itself.

*~*~*~*~*

In the winding stone corridors under the hollow metal structures of the Land of Heat and Clockwork, you attempt to retrace your steps back from the giant record to the transportalizer you’d passed earlier. Your katana is firm in your grip as always, but there's a staticky feeling skating over your skin that you can't quite shake. You didn’t have the time to think about what sort of energy you were releasing during your fight with the chessman calling himself Jack Noir, only that it was the perfect distraction for you to escape instead of getting your ass skewered. You don't like leaving a fight half-finished, but you've still got to meet up with Roxy. If she's not on Dave’s planet, then she must be on one of the other ones. What you need to do next is—

“Dirk.”

You freeze in your tracks and whip your head around. Your katana drops from your hand to clatter on the floor. You're in the middle of a fantasy lava planet in another dimension. Does this place have ghosts, too?

“You're — You’re not real,” you stammer out. “You can't be real.”

“I'm just as real as you are,” Jake says. He looks younger than he was the last time you saw him, like he stepped right out of a National Geographic, khaki and blunderbuss and all.

How dare he, the stitched-together Cal says from around your neck. Traitor. The old man should have stayed dead.

“What the fuck is going on?” you ask Jake, ignoring Cal’s tantrum while busy with your own. “It's been so long, I—” I thought you were dead, is what you don't say. You died. How can you be back?

“Interdimensional travel isn't always the most linear science, you know,” Jake says.

“Were you here? On this planet?” you press. “Is that why no one could reach you?”

“This planet, other planets…” Jake waves a hand absently and leans his blunderbuss against the wall. You remember your own weapon is lying on the floor, but you don't want to pick it up because you're afraid he’ll disappear if you look away even once. “The details aren't important. I'm just here because I changed my mind.” He starts walking towards you. “I didn't want to leave the Medium without talking to you at all.”

Was… was he going to leave without talking to you? He said he was going to explain things. He promised you.

Business as usual for Jake Harley, Cal says. When has he ever followed through? He should be dead.

“You really wanted to see me?” is what comes out of your mouth. It’s embarrassingly desperate, and you don’t care in the slightest.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asks, mouth quirking up at the corner as he walks closer towards you.

“You don’t exactly have the best track record of staying in one place.” You feel the static itching along your arms, urging you to reach out to him.

He should be dead and stuffed and mounted like a trophy to incompetent liars, Cal says.

“How long are you going to stay?” you ask Jake, continuing to ignore Cal. “Are you going to come back again later? Roxy said she was trying to get ahold of you, but you—”

“Don’t tell me,” Jake interrupts, now standing in front of you. “If I’m meant to know, I’ll find out.” At least he holds himself to his own standard for that. “I just wanted to talk with you again while I could.”

“You said you were going to explain everything.” It’s difficult not to get frustrated.

“Do you know what the purpose of this game is?” Jake asks, stepping further into your personal space. Your frustration dissipates like a bad dream and you lean in to him, rapt. “They’re going to make a new universe, the four of them.”

“Can’t go back to the old one,” you agree.

“We can’t tell them,” Jake adds, his hand snaking around to the small of your back, “but they’re going to do it. I know. We get to help them get there.”

“What about the Batterwitch?” you ask. “I haven’t seen any alien ladies around.”

“She‘s not anywhere where she can bother us today,” Jake grins. “And when they find her, the kids will defeat her, too, I suspect.”

“I oughta catch you during an apocalypse more often,” you say, pressing yourself against him. “You’re a lot easier to talk to like this.”

Cal still doesn’t think the moron in the pith helmet deserves to be spoken to. He abandoned you, remember?

“Maybe I’m trying to apologize for last time,” Jake says.

“I happen to like being apologized to.” Touching him sends an entirely different sort of electricity through you than the giant record, and palming the front of Jake’s pants confirms that it’s the same for him. “Which last time do you want to start with?”

"I don't feel quite so caddish about how young you are, for one," he says.

Fourteen years, Cal says.

"I've never been young," you reply bluntly.

“Oh, Dirk…” if he starts pitying you, you’re going to scream. “I was hoping you’d learned to be nicer than this.”

“Maybe you should’ve spent more time correcting me,” you say, dragging your hips against his.

“Would you have listened?” he asks pointedly.

“...Eventually,” you say. He keeps looking at you, so you grind against him again and amend yourself. “Probably. Maybe.”

Jake laughs.

“Look, I would’ve done my best.”

“That’s everything I could hope for, then,” Jake says, and then he finally kisses you. Your tongue dances with his as you start to work on getting him out of all that khaki.

He slows too soon.

"Jake..." you plead.

"Not with him watching," he responds.

"What?"

"The puppet," Jake clarifies. "Not while he's watching." You look at him in confusion. It's just Cal.

Cal protests any removal from the premises, of course. He doesn't like being talked about like he's somebody's dog who needs to be put out in the yard. And anyway, wasn't this old man the one who abandoned you for so many years? Why should you do what he says? The only thing Jake Harley has ever done for you is break your heart, time and time again.

"I mean it." Jake's voice is calm, but you can hear the steel underneath. "Dirk."

"Okay," you say, flashstepping to the door, chucking Cal out of the room and around the corner, pointedly ignoring Cal's invective about not knowing what's good for you, then flashstepping back. You can't help who you're drawn to, and you're know you won't get another chance, after this.

Jake goes back to kissing you, his rough hands on your face, until your back hits the corridor wall, and you fist your hands in the back of his shirt so he can't go anywhere, either. He presses so hard you think you could turn into a liquid. He touches you until you whimper, sliding his hands across your skin, peeling the years away, until it’s like you’re twenty-one all over again.

"Thought you were worried about your knees," you say, a little breathlessly despite yourself.

"What are you going on about?" he asks.

"Right," you say, allowing yourself a smile. "It's the time travel from the other dimension, isn't it? Almost forgot."

"Have you gained any understanding of time travel?"

"Hell no," you say. "That shit makes my head hurt."

"You could try a little harder." You get the feeling he's talking about something else.

"I wouldn't know where to start."

"It's never too late," Jake says. "There's always another chance to end it right."

"If I ask you what I'm gonna end, are you gonna tell me?" He just touches your face. You take a breath. "Wasn't expecting anything else, really."

"I'm ruining the moment with my reticence, aren't I?" Jake asks.

"I'm not asking for a novel or anything," you say, "just..."

"Mm?"

"Ah..."

"What do you want, Dirk?"

"Just tell me it's been worth it," you whisper.

"It will be," he murmurs back. "You'll see. I have faith in you."

"What for?"

"I can't help it," he answers, smiling. "You'll forgive me, just this once?"

"Yes..."

*~*~*~*~*

It’s not long after you get back aboveground that Jack catches up to you again. He chases you from Dave’s planet through several kaleidoscope nodes and transportalizer gates to another Land, this one a dark blue, with the only illumination distant fireflies and phosphorescent mushrooms.

You’ve realized by now that outrunning him probably isn’t going to be possible, so you pick a nearby sapphire-hued mesa and turn to make your stand.

The second fight begins much quicker than the first did, no need for the slow circling and silent assessment of skill. You and Jack already know what the other is capable of. Jack takes the sword out of his chest midair and you block overhead with your katana. Taking this opportunity to make another attack with Cal, you fling the puppet at him, preoccupying the tangle of his tentacles and keeping them away from disabling you instead. Jack strikes again with his sword, and you parry accordingly. You two continue on in this fashion.

Until you don’t. Jack shudders, green lightning suddenly crackling over his body, and you jump back to avoid being hit by it. Jack’s body shifts and morphs, and Jack growls in pain as his mutations shrink and extend back out.

Jack is still growling when the mutations settle. This is because he is now also a dog. A homicidal super-dog with green lightning coming off of his body, maybe, but the doggishness is clear. He fucking barks at you, and then attacks again.

Jack is much faster like this, as the green lightning allows him to not merely flashtep but actively teleport from location to location. He’s as ferocious and bloodthirsty as ever, slicing and grabbing and growling and you quickly come to the conclusion that you and Cal are totally boned.

In the next moment, Dave comes back. He's entirely orange, with large wings and a ghostly tail instead of feet, but it's still Dave. He flies to your side and brandishes his equally orange katana at Jack.

And suddenly, it's easier to steady your own katana at Jack. You feel like you're actually here for a reason now, instead of wandering aimlessly through stone buildings with text you can't read or setting off giant record traps with energy too explosive for you to endure for more than a few seconds.

This game wasn't made for you; you can recognize that, now. But if you're mostly superfluous in this medium space, then you're going to squeeze every last bit of usefulness out of yourself.

With your katana in one hand and Cal in the other, you and Dave defend against Jack's attack. It quickly becomes apparent that Jack's transformation into part-dog has given him a ridiculous amount of power. Not only is he stronger and faster than he was in your last fight, he's also gained the ability to teleport at will. The teleports are even faster than any flashstepping you or Dave can do, though they're usually accompanied by a crackle of green lightning. It takes every ounce of concentration you possess, but you and Dave manage to hold your own. Until you don't.

You can feel the exact moment that Cal abandons you. He just... slides from your grip without a sound, and you stumble back, staring at him where he lies on the ground. Dave and Jack are watching you watch Cal. It only takes a second, but it seems to last forever.

You hadn't realized how constantly Cal had been speaking to you until he went silent. It feels like you've been asleep, and the waking world is now glaring down at you, harsh and unforgiving. You don’t know what it means.

In the next moment, you raise your katana again, and the fight is back on. Without Cal, though, you don't think you can win, not even with Dave helping you out. Dave is yelling wordlessly at Jack, somewhere in between a scream and a caw, and you're trying to bother at Jack from the other side, but it's not working. There's a silence in your head so loud it's deafening, an ache in your chest that's slowly spreading out to your limbs, and the creeping sensation that you've made a series of critical mistakes that you will not be able to recover from.

“Dave…”

You suddenly feel like you need to say something to Dave, but whether it's about Cal or about something else, you can't tell. When you try to think of the words, you only find the yawning chasm in your head and the stuttering ache in your chest.

The next scream-caw from Dave snaps through your chest like a firecracker.

Jack has cut off Dave's wing on his right side in a spray of golden blood. Dave's reflexive screech of pain is ringing through your ears, and before you've even registered it, you're meeting Jack's katana with your own. If you could just break it like you did with the other katana back on the roof... but it's not working. Jack is bearing down on you so forcefully, your knees are threatening to buckle, but you're glad his attention's back on you. If you can cut a meteor in half, you can hold out against this for a little longer.

Now, Dave's circling to Jack's other side, off-kilter but completely ignoring the feathers and pixels shedding from his wound, and you watch Jack's eyes follow the movement. You want to warn Dave, but you can't get your throat to work. Jack starts to crackle, and you flashstep as fast as you can back to Dave, shoving him out of the way with your shoulder. Jack is there in an electric crackle, and in the moments Dave flaps to realign himself, Jack has met your blade again in the spot Dave used to occupy.

Dave resumes his attack, and Jack meets both Dave's and your blows with an ease that jangles at your nerves, the sense of unease threatening to burst into a panic you can barely shove down. You can hear little caws of pain escape from Dave's mouth every time he parries a blow.

You grit your teeth and put yourself between Jack and Dave once more. With all the strength you can muster, you push Jack backwards and away, skidding. Jack growls at you, and then crackles. You can hear the space warping behind you, so you spin, and Jack is there, still growling, Dave behind him. You thrust at Jack with your katana again, and he crackles again, and...

And you can’t move. Why can't you move? Dave is staring at you. You can't feel your katana in your hand anymore. Jack is grinning. What did he do with your katana?

Oh.

You found your katana. You can't breathe. Dave looks so upset. You want to say something, but all you can rasp out is his name. Dave is saying something, but you can't parse it. Jack, still holding your katana, pushes it deeper into your chest, and you feel yourself fall.

You don't feel your back hit the ground. You try to say something to Dave again, but nothing comes out. You feel like you should be saying something to him, because he looks so upset, but then you can't think of what it is. You can't think of what you were going to say, and then that's it.