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If an outside observer creeped on the Strider apartment right now, they'd have no way of knowing that they hadn't stumbled on a standard American nuclear family: doting mother, hardass father, and two trouble-making children -- one boy and one girl, no less. You can't decide if that's hilarious or disturbing.

You're likewise not sure what to make of Bro. You've never seen him so tense in your entire life and that's including the fight with Jack Noir. His poker face remains strong, save for an occasional twitch when Rose refers to him as "daddy," but his movements are rigid. The dude is more unnerved by sitting down for dinner than by a freakyass video game boss that killed him.

At least the Lalondes are at ease with this emotion called family. They chat about Houston weather and pass the salt and smile and act as if this is any kind of normal.

Is this what life's always like for them or are they just putting on their best faces for company?

You're not used to keeping quiet, but this is one conversation you have no idea how to navigate, you don't have a map, and there's no proper signage anyway. You just let someone else take the wheel and study the route as a passive passenger.

Mom asks you when school starts up in Texas. You shrug and tell her that you're home schooled like Rose so you don't keep track of that shit.

She asks you if you're enjoying her cooking. You say it's rad, which is only sort of a lie -- you find the taste weird as fuck, but you're pretty sure it's objectively high quality soup, so you might as well give it a positive review despite your own reservations.

She asks Bro if his face is capable of more than a single expression. He answers by scowling.

It's fucking surreal. You're not sure you've exchanged this many mundane words before in your life, but it's almost a relief to put on the cruise control and pretend to be normal people for just an hour. At least your confused daze is an effective distraction from your brain's usual moping.

As dinner draws to a close, Mom leans over to Bro, resting her chin in her hand. "Sooo, Dirk, you got any good liquor in this mess you call a kitchen?"

Bro doesn't react, but Rose's confident demeanor shatters with a wince. "Mom..." she whispers, tugging at Mom's sleeve.

Mom falters, then returns her smile twice as wide and five times as forced. "Y'know what, just kidding!" she says, patting Rose's hand. "I was kidding, duh! Pft, me and my duuumb jokes!"

You try to pretend like you don't notice the potential drama sitting at your doorstep. It slipped your mind in the midst of the excessive normalcy that invaded the apartment, but even if they've got more social competence to their names on the whole, that doesn't change that the Lalondes still have their own awkward blend of Issues. You avert your gaze (not that anyone can tell) and prod at a carrot sitting amidst a puddle of broth and orts of celery at the bottom of your bowl. You should probably eat it, but cooked vegetables are fuckin' weird and mushy.

Mom perks up as she notices you playing with the dregs of your meal. "Hey, if you're done, I can take care of the dishes!" she says, standing to catch your bowl and stack it with the others.

"Uh, yeah, sure, thanks," you say as if it makes a difference when she's already in the midst of clearing the table whether you like it or not.

Rose sighs and swipes a spoon from the table before Mom can grab it. "Mom, let me help."

"No, no, no, you go play with your brother!" Mom yanks the spoon out of Rose's hand and drops it on top of her precarious pile of dirty dishes. "Mom's got this."

"Does 'Mom' have dish soap?" Bro says flatly.

Mom just about screeches to a halt mid-stride to the sink. She spins on him. "Dirk, you six-foot-three toddler, do not tell me this apartment has no cleaning supplies!"

Bro shrugs, leaning back in his chair. "What do we need those for when we've got spit?"

Mom pulls a face as if she's just swallowed a bug, grimacing in horror.

You furrow your brow. This apartment is more cluttered than the aftermath of a Wal-Mart on Black Friday, but Bro's always been a slut for soap and keeping shit bacteria-free, so what the fuck is he talking about? "We don't-"

Bro kicks your foot under the table. "We don't got any, so if you've got a hankering for washing dishes properly, you'll have to stop at the CVS down the street first," he says the instant you clamp your mouth shut to keep from yelping in pain.

Mom dumps her armload of dishes on the counter. "Oh, yeah, well maybe I will!" She stomps back to the table to lean down and give Rose, then you, a peck on the cheek. "Bye, babies, don't let your dumb dad infect you with his fratboy ways in the ten minutes I'm gone," she says, her volume softer when addressing you. She pats Rose's head. "Rose, make sure Dave stays awake and stuff."

"That was already firmly secured on my to-do list," Rose says, eying you like a hawk checking out its prey, or an animal tamer summing up her next troubled client. Something like that. The point is, it's kind of a condescending gaze and you're tempted to flip Rose off if Mom would just turn her back already.

Mom's busy shooting Bro a dirty look all the way to the door, though. She snatches up her purse, her glare still aimed at the kitchen, and turns away only as she stomps out the front door, as if it's possible to successfully shame Bro for jackshit.

As the door closes behind her, you straighten up. "Okay, so what the shit was-"

"Dave, shut up," Bro says, his volume quiet but his tone sharp.

Rose plants her elbows on the table and leans in, staring hard at Bro. "You know, Daddy, inflicting that kind of dismissive language on a child under your care bears a high chance of inducing long-term psychological harm, including such lovely symptoms as low confidence and wavering self-esteem." She settles back into her chair, her voice still dripping with venom as she says, "Just something to keep in mind before you talk to your 'brother' that way again."

Bro dismissively waves a hand. "Yeah, whatever, I'm not listening, so remind me later." The instant the elevator dings out in the hall, signaling Mom's departure to the ground floor, he flashsteps away.

You don't figure you'll ever find out what his deal is or why he was so desperate to chase Mom out of the apartment for ten minutes. Bro works in mysterious and obnoxious ways like that.

Today is apparently an exception to "mysterious." In the blink of an eye, half a dozen cases of beer land on the kitchen counter, piled in two stacks next to the sink. It has to be every drop of booze Bro keeps in the apartment. You knew the asshole likes to stock up, but goddamn, you'd never bothered to take count.

Bro moves too fast to see it, but you hear the cling of two bottles of beer ripping open against the edge of the counter. He stops flashstepping only when he tips the bottles over the sink and lets the brown liquid fall down the drain.

Rose rests her arm on the back of her chair as she swivels to watch him. "You're dumping the alcohol."

"Keen observation skills, kid," Bro says, not even bothering to glance at her. "You should be a detective when you grow up."

"You could just keep it hidden," she says with a frown. "Mom isn't going to snoop."

"Not worth the risk. She might find it looking for something else." Bro sets aside the freshly emptied bottles and cracks open two more, pouring them out the same as the first. "Flashstepping doesn't make liquid pour down the drain any faster, by the way, and I only have two arms, so if you wanna get off your asses before your mom gets back, that'd be cool. Metaphorically speakin', Dave."

You roll your eyes. "Thanks, Bro."

Rose climbs to her feet and cautiously approaches the counter. She grabs a fresh pair of beers, following Bro's example of ripping the caps off with a careful tug at the edge of the counter. "You're still an asshole," she mutters as she joins him in pouring the booze down the sink.

"Yeah, I know," he says quietly. He moves over to make room for the two of you.

You don't know how the hell either he or Rose gets the damn caps off these fucking bottles with just a quick flick against the counter. All you succeed at is making your fingers sore, until Bro takes enough pity on you to toss over a proper bottle opener (probably because they've already emptied most of a case while you're still struggling to get started). So sue you for being the only asshole in the room who doesn't drink enough to learn this fancy shit.

Rose pulls one of the bottles close after emptying it and squints as she examines the label. "This isn't cheap alcohol."

"Nope." Bro cracks open two more beers and holds one out to her. "Want to down a bottle with me so at least some of 'em don't go to fucking waste?"

If your legs were strong enough to more than nudge him, you'd kick him right in the shin and return his earlier favor. As it is, you just shout, "Dude!"

"What?"

"She's like thirteen!" You frantically run your finger across your throat out of view from Rose and hope he picks up the subtext. They're both alcoholics, Bro. Do not give her any fucking booze.

Whether he follows your hidden meaning or not, he at least pulls away the offered bottle and pours it over the sink instead. "Yeah, whatever, I don't feel like getting arrested anyway." He sets it aside. "Hey, Mini Roxy."

"Rose," she says, shooting him a suspicious glare.

"Wow, it must suck to get called weird shit. Anyway, Mini Roxy, how about you take charge of running the empty shit to recycling while Dave and I finish up here?" he says, jerking his thumb at the sizable collection of empty bottles the three of you have amassed so far.

Rose cocks her head. "You recycle?"

"You got a problem with saving the environment? The fuck kind of shitty cartoon PSAs do you kids grow up on these days?"

"They cancelled Captain Planet long before my generation," she says, swiping the bottles into her sylladex.

"Fuckin' sad." He shakes his head. "Recycling room's on the ground floor. There's signage all over the damn place."

"I'm sure I'll figure it out," she calls as she slips out the door.

You sigh in relief and wheel closer to the sink now that there's more room. You weren't that okay with Rose handling booze even to pour it out, so you can't complain that she's been reassigned to a new post, but now you gotta step up your efforts if there's only two of you doing the dirty work. "Nice save."

"Yeah, you could have fucking warned me not to put booze right in her hands." Bro leans back against the counter and cracks open a single beer instead of the usual combo. "Guess I'll only save one of these poor bastards from a tragic destiny that ends in a sewer graveyard."

"We got time for that before Mom gets back?" you ask as you peel off two more lids one by one with the bottle opener.

He shrugs. "I can chug it as fast as we could pour it out."

You hover a fresh bottle over the sink, not quite turning it over yet, and quirk an eyebrow at him. "Wanna bet?"

He looks your way as if summing you up before giving you the slightest of dead serious nods. "Bring it, bro."

You tip the alcohol into the sink at the same time as he tilts his head back to chug like a nineteen-year-old fratboy at his first college party. This is the kind of stupid family "bonding" shit you're used to: doing dumbass crap for shits and giggles. You kinda missed the mindlessness of it compared to the pressure of a pleasant conversation over a homemade meal. Nostalgia and familiarity is one hell of a drug.

As the last drops of booze fall from your bottles, Bro stops for air. He shakes the beer as he catches his breath and you hear a quiet swish of leftover liquid sitting at the bottom.

"Lame." You set aside your victorious and empty bottles, trying not to smirk too much.

"Okay, so maybe I needed a warm-up," he says, downing the rest of the bottle in one successful swallow.

You snort. "Excuses, man. Best two out of three?"

"I'd take you on any other day, but even if we weren't on the clock, now ain't the time to stink of alcohol." He cracks open two bottles faster than you can, hands them to you to pour out, then repeats the process for himself. "We'll have a rematch once Roxy and the smartass are back in New York, a'right?"

"You're on." You study him out of the corner of your eye. You've never been able to get a good read on him, but you're even more lost than usual now that he's actually shown some weakness. You wait another moment to sum up enough courage to outright ask, "So are you regretting calling in the Lalonde cavalry yet?"

Bro goes still and silent for long enough that you worry maybe you're going to regret changing the subject. His voice is even flatter than usual when he finally says, "You're actually awake for more than ten minutes at a fucking crack. I don't regret shit."

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