They pulled him out of the basement, wide-eyed and soot-covered and shivering through the intense heat. His bad eye had secreted so many tears, trying in vain to counteract the dust and smoke in the air, that it was gummed shut and the flesh surrounding it was red, raw, and painful.
The world had been utterly silent to him, in addition to its customary monochromatic cast, and the activity around him had played out like a manic adventure of the Keystone Cops. He had laughed a little, and well-meaning strangers wrapped him in a blanket and slung their arms over his shoulders and—he knew, although he could not heard their voices or read their lips—told him that his parents were dead and that they had sent for his brother.
His brother, Aloysius, dearest brother who was away at the finest of English schools, absent but not forgotten, lurking around every suspect corner each time he tried to close his eyes on the world. The hatred burned in him like acid, eating away at his inner organs, traveling through the blood stream and infusing his brain with a frisson that brought energy and purpose.
He’d stood still among the circling firefighters and emergency personnel, whose tasks were winding down, becoming less urgent as the fire was contained and quashed. The mansion itself was beyond saving; the raw foundations stood out amid the heaps of charred remains and unidentifiable rubble like the bones of a massively deformed dinosaur. He’d stared at the wreckage with the blanket pulled tight around his shoulders, thumbs hooked into the corners and his hands clasped together, palm to palm with the tips of his middle fingers just brushing against his upper lip. In his mind he was rebuilding the Maison de la Roichenoire, restoring it to its former splendor, and then systematically tearing it down once again.
This was all Aloysius’s fault.
It was always Aloysius’s fault. The image of his brother rose up before him like a spectre, infernally white-hot and blazing with sharp, sharp silhouetted lines that defied the chaos that surrounded him. He had blinked, savoring the blurred aftermath of the scene that played behind his eyelids, and when he opened his eyes he saw that his brother’s figure was cracking and splitting into shards and slivers. Then the wind kicked up, pushing hard against the back of his neck, and he’d watched as his brother blew away as if he were a handful of dust.
Then there was nothingness. Retreat. He barely felt the hands that hovered over his shoulders, trying to lead him without touching him. It was family, he’d realized. Strangers would touch him, but family always hesitated as if they expected to be bitten. He remained safe inside his own mind as his distant relatives gingerly bathed him and treated his mild wounds. During the car trip to Baton Rouge he watched the landscape surge past in a blur of concrete and adjacent automobiles. He was put to bed in a spare room as if he were a small child and told not to worry, that his brother would soon be there, they had sent for him to come home immediately, and that everything would be just fine once he arrived.
It sounded, to ears that still rang with his parents’ desperate croaking and final cries of desperation, like an insidious threat.
When his brother arrived from overseas, he appeared without ceremony or magic or mystique. There were dark circles under his eyes, his suit was rumpled and creased, and his hair needed to be washed. He stood in the foyer, a black valise in one hand and a suitcase in the other and watched dully as Diogenes approached the stairs from the upper floor. But Cousin Eustace intercepted Aloysius before he could approach, cooing over him and calling over the housekeeper to take his bags. Diogenes leaned against the banister from the landing and watched the scene as it unfolded. His brother was weary but still patient with their cousin, all the while allowing his gaze to drift up the stairs to where Diogenes stood. He seemed unwilling to allow Diogenes out of his line of sight for any longer than absolutely necessary, and was not bothering to hide his unease.
In the shadows that pooled and dripped over the staircase, Diogenes smiled an unsettling Cheshire cat’s grin and waited. His brother kept stepping toward the curl of the first steps as if he were a puppet and Diogenes was pulling the strings. He entertained himself imaging he was controlling Aloysius’s hands and head as well. Yes, Cousin Eustace. Nod. Yes, it’s absolutely tragic. Handshake.
And then, finally, Aloysius was striding up the stairs toward him, the shadows filtering through the small windows above the staircase and creating strobing patterns of light and dark on his pale, wan complexion and black suit. Diogenes stood up straight, rolling his shoulders back as he waited for his brother to approach him.
“You—” Aloysius began to speak, stopping several steps down from him and staring up. Diogenes raised his finger to his lips, silencing him.
“Not here,” Diogenes said, his heavily lidded eyes and teasing smirk giving him an air of seductiveness that caused Aloysius to stiffen and lean back. “You never know who might be listening.” He twitched his head toward the room closest to the top of the stairs, spinning on his heel and into the small library without waiting to see whether his brother would follow him. Rage tingled in his fingertips as he heard Aloysius shut the door behind him.
“Diogenes.” His brother’s voice was soft and full of worry and just the slightest amount of delicious fear. “Did you—?”
“I’m not staying here.” Diogenes said, keeping his gaze fixed out the large bay window as he felt his brother’s suspicious stare creeping over the back of his head. “Do you understand?” There was no answer. “There is nothing keeping me here.”
“Where do you plan to go?”
“Away.” Diogenes turned, twining his hands together behind his back in a mockery of his brother’s customary body language. He pursed his lips into a humorless smile. “To escape your fraternal oppression.”
“Diogenes, the fire—?” The urgency in his brother’s voice was highly amusing to him, almost provocative. He licked his lips and sighed, cutting off the question before it could be posed fully.
“Let’s not talk about such depressing things, dear brother,” he chided in a breathy, teasing voice that he knew would make Aloysius stiffen with discomfort. “There’s no reason to let your manners slide.” He closed his eyes. “Even under these trying circumstances.” His brother’s annoyance was palpable, and he felt his control over the situation tighten.
Still Aloysius persisted. He felt the vibrations in the floorboards as his brother stepped forward. “Diogenes, look at me.” He did not turn. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
“There is nothing to tell.” Diogenes replied, evasive as always. “All you need to know is that I will be leaving, I will be wiring for the money I require, and I expect it to be provided.” He heard his brother exhale sharply in irritation and closed his eyes, savoring the sound.
“This is absolutely ridiculous,” his brother murmured after a pause. “Mother and Father are dead.” The statement hung in the air, odious and sobering, as Aloysius took a deep breath. “Now look at me, Diogenes, and tell me what happened!”
Oh, brother dearest! He turned away from the window, anticipating exactly what he would see and the way his hatred would swell in his chest and stick in his throat. Yet, for all his preparation, his brother’s face still caught him off-guard. Though it was much the same as when he had first left for Oxford, for the first time in years Diogenes could see the color of his eyes. They stood out like fine, pale blue diamonds set against a black and white photo, and reminded him of their mother. They were unmistakably her eyes, which had always been so cool and distant, much like the stones set in the delicate jewelry she favored, and with which he had always been absorbed and intoxicated.
He closed the physical distance between himself and Aloysius with a few long, quick steps, grasping his older brother’s upper arms before he could pull away, never taking his own eyes off the unexpected and remarkable flash of color that he was experiencing in his brother’s irises. Aloysius went rigid and tried to pull back, but he held him firmly, drinking in the experience and noticing, as he never truly had before, how closely Aloysius resembled their mother. The high forehead, thin lips, wide-set eyes, and prominent cheekbones so recalled the woman who had birthed them, the only human being from whom he had ever sought pure approval and attention, that for a moment Diogenes truly believed that he was holding his mother. He moved his hands up to his brother’s cheeks, stroking his fingertips over the soft down of fine, pale hairs, and delighting in the disgust that lit upon his brother’s face. Conflicting feelings of the purest hatred and adoration roiled inside of him, vying for attention like the memory of his mother’s perfume battling for prominence alongside the pervasive smell of cooked flesh that had wafted from her charred corpse as paramedics lifted it onto a stretcher.
“Oh, frater,” he murmured, still transfixed and distracted by the sight of Aloysius’s eyes. He licked his lips and leaned forward, hardly daring to blink for fear that the brilliant blue would disappear in that fraction of a second. He felt, unexpectedly, a shivering limpness in Aloysius, a compliance he was sure he would never see again. Barely breathing, he fell forward, closing the short distance between them, and touched his lips to his brother’s.
There was a moment of perfect, blissful stillness, in which he felt a rare tingle of pleasure travel up his spine. Aloysius’s jaw dropped just enough to allow Diogenes to slip his tongue inside and taste the film on his teeth. He felt a surge of Aloysius’s thin, salty saliva flow over his tongue, and he realized that what he was devouring was, in part, his mother’s legacy. Though his hatred for his brother was a deep, stabbing pain in his gut, he understood that he was bringing the two remaining halves of the woman he loved together in their bodies.
Disturbing and pornographic images surged through his mind, sudden and kaleidoscopic and unwelcome. It would be so easy to take Aloysius back to the bedroom to play pretend, and yet it would be just as easy to turn the gentle cupping of his brother’s jaw and head to a firm grasp, jerk him violently to one side, and snap his neck. Both options held an equal attraction for him, and so he could not succumb to either. He would achieve his pleasure by denying himself resolve until he could deny no longer, and the acts would become all the more sweet for the wait.
Their lips parted, but they remained kiss-close. Diogenes kept his hands firmly upon his brother’s jaw. He felt Aloysius take a deep, shivering breath and smiled. The brilliant blue that had been present just moments earlier had faded to the customary inkwash tones of grey, and he had to resist the impulse to mourn the loss.
“I’m going to tell you the future, Aly,” he whispered, tipping Aloysius’s chin up with a jerk, startling him into giving his full attention. “All right? I’m going to walk out the door. You won’t follow me. You will send me money when I ask for it. Do you understand?”
“I won’t,” Aloysius murmured. “I won’t let you.”
“Oh, but you will, brother! Dearest older brother. Frater.” Diogenes stretched forward and kissed his brother on the forehead with exaggerated tenderness. “And, soon after my twenty-first birthday, you will hear news of my death, I expect. But don’t fret!” He pushed his fingers into Aloysius’s hair, smoothing it back from his temples. “I’ll continue on, always watching you.”
Aloysius shoved his brother’s hands away. “You’re disgusting,” he said, the words coming out slowly, as if he were surfacing from some waking nightmare. “You won’t even stay for the funeral.”
Diogenes tipped his head to one side. “If I wanted to attend, you would tell me I wasn’t allowed.” He shrugged. “Happily, I don’t feel the need for such sentimentalities.” He waited a moment in case his brother cared to respond and tried to ignore the tug of sadness he felt at the thought of his mother’s body being lowered into the ground. When Aloysius remained mute, he turned to leave.
“Wait.” The urgency in Aloysius’s voice stopped him before he reached the door; Diogenes turned, his hand on the doorknob, and quirked one inquiring eyebrow. Aloysius looked past him as he spoke. “Stay.”
“Why should I?”
His brother’s expression changed, became softer and dangerously vulnerable. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” Aloysius took a deep breath and a step forward. Diogenes watched with undisguised curiosity. His brother had divorced himself from emotional reaction so many years earlier that it was fascinating to see his thoughts laid bare across his young, severe face. “Stay with me. We’ll rebuild the Maison.” When this suggestion evoked no response, he tried again. “Or we’ll take some money and leave. We’ll find a place somewhere else. I won’t go back to England, I’ll stay and you can finish school and then we… we can…” He trailed off, helpless under Diogenes’ stiff, combative stare.
Aloysius’s expression showed his blatant fear, and it was disconcerting for Diogenes to realize that he was unable to discern what, exactly, his brother was afraid of. His face, his body language, and the strong show of emotion that had broken his usual stoicism all recalled their mother so strongly that the mild pull in Diogenes’ chest had become a burning, painful ache. “Why?” He asked, delighting in the way his brother twitched backward. “Tell me why I should stay when I hate you.”
“Because,” Aloysius’s voice faltered, “we’re family.” His eyes shifted from side to side, scanning Diogenes’ face for any trace of acquiescence. “And it doesn’t have to be this way. Between us.”
“It was your fault in the first place.”
“So consider this my apology!” Aloysius exclaimed, one hand reaching out to Diogenes. “I’m asking you, as my brother, to stay here.” He paused. “Stay and help me rebuild our lives.”
Diogenes stared at his brother, allowing the seconds to drag out into minutes and all the while enjoying the tension on Aloysius’s face. Finally, he spoke. “Oh, Aly,” he said. “Please don’t try to make me like you.” His eyebrows drew together and the corners of his mouth turned down, more a parody of anger than a true show of fury. “If I didn’t hate you, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
Then he turned, his frown eclipsing into a rictus of pleasure as he opened the door, strode down the stairs past his inquisitive relatives, and opened the door on a new world of his own perfect design.