This is one of Alan’s oldest memories. He’s little and snuggled into his warm, soft bed, and Mum is sitting on the edge of it as Alan curls against the curve of her hip. Her face is a blur but she smells of vanilla, of cinnamon, and her voice is low and musical.
“Sleep well, don’t stir, don’t let the bad dreams trouble you,” she says, and there’s a soothing, almost hypnotic quality to her voice. It feels to Alan as if she’s imparting him with some ancient, mystical wisdom.
She bends over him, and her blond hair brushes against Alan’s nose. Her fingers touch his cheek and Alan giggles, leans against her hand as she whispers to his ear, “I’ll see you in the morning. ’Til then, don’t forget that I love you.”
Alan’s breath is coming out in short pants, and his chest is burning from the run, and from guilt too, because he’s late and he’s made Nick wait. It’s not as if Nick will say anything, of course, or even manifest any unhappiness; but Alan still doesn’t like the thought of his baby brother waiting and watching the other kids being picked up by their parents while no one is coming for him.
Alan wonders if Nick had any doubt about whether Alan would come for him. Dad would say that Nick probably doesn’t think about it at all.
Mrs Teague, Nick’s current playschool teacher, smiles warmly when she sees Alan.
Alan is too breathless to answer so he nods instead. Mrs Teague looks amused.
“Take your time,” she tells him gently. “There’s no hurry.”
“Sorry.” Alan takes a deep breath. “Where’s Nick?”
He hopes it’s only his imagination, but he thinks that Mrs Teague’s smile dims a little.
“Over there. Near the window.”
That’s where Alan finds him, standing still as a statue and looking outside. Nick seems to like windows. Alan wonders sometimes if this is because he’d rather look at the world through a pane of glass than deal with it directly.
“Hey, Nick,” Alan says cheerfully. He knows Nick heard him because his brother turns his head. “I’m sorry I’m late. My teacher wanted to talk to me about some homework, and I didn’t realise it was so late.”
Nick doesn’t say anything. Not that he ever does, but each time Alan feels a little pang inside. Nick’s eyes are two dark, bottomless holes in his face that betray his true nature and make people uncomfortable, afraid of a little kid without knowing why. Alan holds out his hand and Nick takes it obediently. The feel of his brother’s small hand inside his makes Alan so happy that for a moment it doesn’t matter that Nick doesn’t talk, that he scares people so much that no one likes him. No one but Alan.
“Let’s go back home now, okay Nick? Before Dad gets back.”
He’s about to tug at Nick’s hand – most of the time Nick needs a little prompting to go anywhere – when he notices the dark spot and the tear in the right knee of Nick’s trousers.
“Oh, Nick, what happened?” Alan drops to his knees to have a closer look, and can see that the dark spot is blood, not mud. “Does it hurt? What happened?” he repeats, as if Nick would answer him.
He doesn’t, of course. But Alan remembers that someone else can.
“Mrs Teague!” he calls.
He hears the teacher’s hurried footsteps before she answers him, “Yes, what is it, Alan?”
“Nick’s hurt.” Alan points a finger at Nick’s knee. “What happened?”
“Oh. I don’t know. I didn’t know he was hurt.” Alan turns to glare at her, and her mouth pinches with something like annoyance. “He didn’t say anything.”
“He never says anything,” Alan says accusingly.
He can’t keep his anger out of his voice, and he knows he shouldn’t talk to a grown-up like that, to a teacher, but it was her job to take care of Nick when Alan couldn’t and she had failed.
“It doesn’t look bad,” she says, and Alan’s fury burns so hot that he has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from saying something he shouldn’t.
Of course he knows that Nick’s wound isn’t serious. But Nick is four, and four-year-olds should be protected. And yes, Alan knows, because Dad explained to him, what exactly Nick is and that he’s existed for a lot longer than the years Alan has known him, but he’s new at being human and living in this world, and that makes him a kid in Alan’s book.
“Good bye,” he tells Mrs Teague icily, before he drags Nick behind him as he storms out of the room.
He hears her huff and mutter, “Weird kid.”
He doesn’t know if she’s talking about him or Nick, or if she even meant for him to hear it. Maybe she’s too used to talking in front of Nick as if he can’t understand her. Alan has noticed that a lot of people do that – because Nick doesn’t talk, they think he doesn’t get what they’re saying. Dad would say he doesn’t, and that Alan is fooling himself. Alan knows better.
When they leave the school and start walking down the street, Alan’s anger subsides and then he’s close to tears. Mrs Teague has never been anything but nice to him, and it feels as if she betrayed him personally.
“It’s okay, Nick,” he says, trying to keep the tears out of his voice. “I’ll look at it when we’re home. I’ll clean you up. Don’t mind Mrs Teague, she’s just mean. She should have taken care of you. It’s not that she doesn’t like you, she’s just a bad teacher. Does it hurt at all?”
He looks down at his brother, and that’s only then that he notices that Nick’s limping. It’s not very noticeable, just a little stutter in his steps, but he’s definitely not walking like usual. Alan stops dead, his heart thumping in his chest. Nick looks up at him, maybe confused as to why they stopped so suddenly, but his face is as cold and expressionless as ever.
“You are hurting,” Alan whispers, feeling like the worst brother ever.
Because until now the idea of Nick’s pain had always been something abstract. There has never been any sign that Nick could feel pain, and some part of Alan had assumed that he couldn’t. He’s as bad as Mrs Teague.
Alan doesn’t know what to do now that he has come to this realization. He wants to carry Nick home, but Nick is too big for that. Alan would only drop him.
“We need to go home. Then I’ll take care of you, I promise.”
He puts a hand on Nick’s shoulder and Nick tolerates the contact for a few seconds before he starts to squirm. Alan drops his hand, and start walking slower than before, mindful of Nick’s pace.
When they get home Alan takes Nick directly to the bathroom, takes off his trousers and sits him on the edge on the tub. Then he starts cleaning the wound. It’s not bleeding anymore and it’s just a scratch, but there’s dirt on it and Alan thinks about infection and worries.
He glances at Nick and sees that his brother’s lips are pressed in a way that he’s never seen on him before. The rest of his face is marble, and his black eyes are following unblinkingly Alan’s gestures, but his mouth betrays everything Nick doesn’t express. It hurts. Alan’s hurting him.
“Sorry, it’s almost over. Look, it’s done, I’m done, I won’t hurt you anymore.” He puts a plaster on Nick’s knee and tries to smile up at him. “See? You’re as good as new. We need to find you some new trousers. Those are ruined. Which…”
He cuts off when he feels Nick’s fingers curl up around his. Visibly Nick has caught on that they were done here, and has slid off the tub and taken Alan’s hand. Alan feels something quiver inside his chest, as if a little animal lived inside and was stirring. He tries to go on as usual, to say something cheerful and reassuring to Nick but he can’t, and is ashamed to feel tears run down his cheeks. He’s being a baby and he hates it.
Nick’s grip on his hand tightens.
“It’s okay,” Alan chokes out, but he doesn’t sound okay at all, and he certainly doesn’t feel okay.
He thinks about all the times people have ignored Nick or been downright mean to him, and Alan wasn’t there to protect him. He thinks about what it would be like to have everyone hate you on sight. Even Dad and Olivia hate Nick, Alan knows. It makes Alan feel cold and alone as if he is the one that everybody hates. Maybe that’s how Nick feels, only he doesn’t know how to express it.
Alan gets on his knees and puts his arms around Nick’s neck, feeling his brother try to twist away, and holding him tighter.
“I love you. I love you. Love you, love you, love you.”
He says it again and again, like a protective spell. He can only hope that Nick understands him.
It’s only when he has to squint to make out the words on the page that Alan realises how dim the light has gotten. Dusk makes everything look soft and faded. The house is silent – which should maybe feel oppressive but is strangely soothing. Alan isn’t glad that Dad and Nick are gone, but he enjoys the time to himself. Dad will take care of Nick so Alan doesn’t have to worry about him; Olivia is calm so he doesn’t have to worry about her, and it’s enough to make Alan content and at peace.
Alan smiles to himself and turns a lamp on, then gets up and goes to the kitchen to make himself some tea. As the water boils and Alan gets the teapot ready, he wonders if he should make some for Olivia too.
He does, and when the tea is ready Alan makes a tray with a cup of tea – milk and sugar, the way Olivia loves it – and some scones. He climbs upstairs, carefully balancing the tray in his hands, but when he knocks on Olivia’s door there’s no answer. Alan waits for a few seconds, then sighs to himself. He should be glad that Olivia is sleeping, she gets so little rest, too haunted by whatever happened to her when she was with Black Arthur – by what happened to her child. Alan knows that she’s able to sleep now because Nick is gone and she feels safer without him, and even though Alan tries to do his best to understand the thought makes his stomach churn uncomfortably. He looks down at the tray in his hands – he doesn’t like milk in his tea but he doesn’t want to waste it so he drinks it quickly. He makes a face, allowing his disgust to show because there’s no one watching him.
He goes back downstairs, pours himself a warm cup of tea – no milk, just a bit of sugar to sweeten the bitterness. He curls in an armchair with his book, the light of the table lamp he turned on forming a halo around him, making a protective bubble against the shadows settling in the rest of the house. Of course, Alan is aware that electric light merely gives the illusion of safety – his knife is never out of reach, and his talisman is a confortable weight against his chest.
He knows he’s fallen asleep reading only when the sound of a car rolling in wakes him up with a jolt. His heart pounds steadily against his ribs as he grabs his knife. Nick and Dad shouldn’t be back yet, they were supposed to be gone for another day – something has to be wrong. All the calm and the contentment he was feeling earlier this evening vanishes and leaves sharp fear that cuts deep through his heart.
He rushes outside in time to see Dad and Nick get out of the cars. A flow of worried questions escapes Alan, but the only answer he gets from Nick is that the whole trip in the mountains idea was stupid– Nick’s favourite word since he started talking – and from Dad, that they have a bag of marshmallow ready to get eaten.
Alan’s confused, but neither Nick or his dad look hurt or sick, so he lets himself relax, and they get to toast the marshmallow over the toaster. They eat them until Alan starts to feel slightly nauseous, and Nick falls asleep on the armchair where Alan was reading earlier. Dad smiles fondly, gathers Nick in his arms and takes him upstairs to his room.
Alan waits anxiously for him to get back downstairs, unable to pick up his book or go to sleep himself. When Dad enters the living room again, he raises his eyebrows at Alan in surprise.
“Isn’t it time for you to go to bed, kiddo? I know it’s Nick’s birthday and it’s a special day, but it’s getting really late.”
Nick’s birthday. They never got Olivia to tell them when exactly Nick was born, so Nick’s birthday is the anniversary of the day Olivia stumbled into their house with Nick in her arms. Alan decided on the date himself; for the longest time, Dad didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“What happened?” Alan asks. “Why did you come back earlier?”
Dad smiles. Alan is well accustomed to his father’s different smiles, so he knows that though this smile is one of the reassuring ones, it’s not the smile his dad wears when he wants Alan to believe that things are all right when they’re not. It gives Alan a measure of comfort.
“Nick wanted to come back. He missed you.”
Alan’s eyes widen. “Did he tell you that?”
“Not in so many words, of course, but he expressed it as well as he knows how. He actually said that you were the one who wanted us to come back home.”
Dad chuckles affectionately, in way that has rarely been aimed at Nick. In Alan, the warmth of knowing that Dad now loves Nick and that Nick maybe missed Alan, is at odds with the guilty memory of enjoying having the house for himself while Nick was unhappy.
“I’m sorry,” he says miserably.
He wishes he could tell this to Nick, but “sorry” is one of the words that confuse him terribly. As far as Nick is able to understand for the moment, “sorry” is what you say when you break something.
“What are you sorry for, Alan?” his dad says, his voice low and gentle. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“The trip was my idea, and it was a mistake.”
Dad passes an arm around Alan’s shoulders, and Alan lets himself rest against his dad’s big chest.
“We have to get Nick used to other people besides us,” Dad says. “Your idea was excellent. But when it didn’t work out I thought it was better to come back, and I think Nick had a good time after that. We’ll have to keep trying.”
“Why?” Alan mumbles. “People don’t understand Nick. He makes them uncomfortable, and they’re mean to him. Maybe – maybe it’s better to keep him close.”
“The more people Nick sees, the more he’ll be able to fit in our world. And…” Dad’s voice gets so soft that Alan can barely hear the rest of his sentence. “…maybe we won’t always be there for him.”
Alan’s breath catches in his throat. He gets what Dad means – he’s talking about dying, about getting killed by the magicians or dying the way Mum did. Alan doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t like the thought of his dad dying and he hates thinking about his brother left alone in a world that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand him. He knows that Dad is right.
He squeezes tighter against his dad, closes his eyes, and tries to forget all thought of death and loneliness.
Getting up in the morning is the hardest part. His leg gets stiff during the night and hurts even worse than usual, every movement a struggle. But Alan gets up because he has to, because even if sometimes he wants nothing more than to stay in his bed and never get out again, he knows it’s not an option. Because people depend on him; because his dad made him promise.
So he grits his teeth, swallows back the sounds of pain, and gets his legs out of the bed. The good one first so he can lean on it, then the bad one, sometimes with the help of both of his hands. He does it as quietly as he can, because he doesn’t want Nick to come and help him. They’re fortunate enough that this time they could get a flat where they each have their room, so that Alan can avoid having his brother’s gaze on him when he’s managing the precarious exercise of getting out of bed. There’s never any pity in Nick’s eyes when he looks at him, not like there is in other people’s when they see the limp. Alan can’t figure whether he’s glad for that or not.
He gets dressed slowly, carefully, then goes to the kitchen to make breakfast. Nick’s already sitting at the kitchen table, munching on cereal and glaring at the wall as if it has personally offended him.
“Good morning,” Alan says, and Nick answers with a groan that has a passing resemblance with ‘’morning.’
Alan makes tea, for himself and Olivia, knowing Nick won’t want any. He prepares a tray for Olivia, and is about to take it upstairs when Nick stops him.
“I can do it,” he says.
His voice is always rougher in the mornings, as if a night without using it is enough that he has already started to forget how to talk. It frightens Alan more than he cares to admit, even to himself.
“I’m sure you can,” Alan says.
Nick scowls. “You know what I mean. You don’t have to get up the damn stairs for her. I can take her her breakfast.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Nick.”
“I’m not going to hurt her.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” Alan says patiently. “But you know how she is. She’s expecting me, and if you show up she’s going to be… startled.”
Nick rolls his eyes at Alan’s euphemism. “Right. But she can get over startled. You shouldn’t have to go up the stairs again if you don’t have to. They’re hurting you.”
Alan stifles the sigh mounting in him. You could never accuse his brother of not saying what he thinks, and most of the time it’s one of the things Alan loves the most about him. Other times…
“I’m taking the tray to Olivia, and that’s it,” he says, trying to do his best impression of Dad’s this-is-the-way-it-is-going-to-be voice.
He turns to leave the kitchen when Nick says, as if he’s read Alan’s thoughts, “Sometimes you’re just too stupid to live. Like Dad.”
For a moment it feels like all the air has left Alan’s lungs. He wonders if Nick actually realises the hurtful power of words. And if he would use them more if he did.
Alan swallows thickly and leaves without a reply, bracing himself for the stairs.
Once he reaches Olivia’s door, he’s dizzy with the exertion and the pain, half-wishing that he’d taken up on Nick’s offer, and hating himself for his weakness. He gives himself a few seconds, then knocks. He pushes the door at Olivia’s “Come in.”
Olivia is on her bed brushing her long dark hair. When she’s calm and composed, she’s beautiful and Alan can see why his dad would have fallen in love with her once. He thinks that he should show her more gratitude for the effort she’s making, taking a job as a cashier to support them now that Dad is… now that Dad is dead. But he has so little left in himself to give others. He has barely enough to make it through the day and not wither like a plant left without sun and water. He’s eleven and feels so old.
“Good morning, Olivia.”
“Put this on the nightstand,” she says, then smiles once he has. “Thank you, Alan.”
Alan tries to smile. He must not do a very good job of it, because Olivia looks at him gravely. She puts her hairbrush down on the bed.
“You know how much easier it would be if you decided to leave him behind, right?”
Alan grits his teeth. “Olivia, don’t.”
“There’s no reason for you to kill yourself over him. You don’t have to carry this burden.”
“Yes, I do. He’s my brother.”
She shakes her head, as if he was a silly child. “No, he’s not. He’s something so utterly alien that he couldn’t be further from being your brother.”
“It has nothing to do with blood!” The anger burning inside him is the most that Alan has felt beyond pain and tiredness in weeks, but he can’t risk Nick overhearing them, so he forces his voice to stay low. “It doesn’t even have anything to do with him being human or not. He’s mine. Mine to protect and take care of.”
“He won’t need you for much longer. What will happen then?”
Olivia is right there with Nick on the cruelty of words. Which makes sense, as she is the closest thing Nick has to a mother. Alan breathes in deeply through his nose and sends his coldest look to Olivia.
“This conversation is over. Don’t ever mention this to me again.”
Olivia sighs. “You’re so much like your parents,” she says, a touch of wistfulness in her voice. “Loving all the lost causes.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Alan says, and hurries out of the room before they can start another argument.
All day at school, Alan can’t help thinking about the conversation with Olivia. It’s not that he’s considering doing what she said – of course not, because Nick needs him. And he wouldn’t leave Olivia behind either, even when he will be able to work and support them, because although he’s angry with her right now, she needs him too. But sometimes Alan is tired of being needed. The love of his parents is now nothing but a memory, and he longs for it so much it aches.
After school, he doesn’t go home directly. He sits at a bus stop and watches people walk past him. He makes up stories to himself about their lives, about their families, and wonders if they would have a place for him. If they would love him the way Mum and Dad did.
When it starts getting dark, Alan shakes himself and hurries back home. As soon as he passes through the door, Nick is there, his face dark and his mouth set in an angry line. He’s almost as tall as Alan now, and suddenly Alan can see why people are so afraid of him.
“Where were you?” Nick asks, his voice low and dangerous. “Why didn’t you come home right after school?”
Alan tries to imagine his mother, whose memory gets blurrier every day, lecturing him with concern in her voice, then hugging him because she’s so relieved he’s back home safe. He tries to feel the pressure of his father’s hand on his shoulder, weighted by concern and love.
All he can see are Nick’s dark eyes, sucking all the warmth in the world.
“Please, Nick. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
He ignores Nick angrily calling for him as he painfully climbs up the stairs.
Alan has barely the time to brace himself before he has his arms full of his aunt Natasha.
“Um, hello, Aunt Natasha,” he says, feeling clumsy and inadequate but strangely warm inside.
“Let me look at you,” Aunt Natasha says, pushing him back and holding him at the shoulders.
As she details him with gleaming eyes and a crooked smile that makes her look like she’s about to cry, Alan takes advantage of the moment to look at her too. His memories of her are even hazier than those of his mother, but he’s still surprised at the lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth, at the flashes of silver in her blond hair. Somehow her warm voice over the phone made Alan picture someone much younger looking.
And she looks like Mum, like the picture of her Dad gave to Alan and that he keeps jealously to himself. It’s here in the form of her eyes, her high forehead, the line of her jaw – not that Marie and Natasha are carbon copies of each other, but the family resemblance is definitely present. Mum and Aunt Natasha look like sisters in the way Alan and Nick will never look like brothers.
The thought of Nick is enough to distract Alan through Aunt Natasha ushering him inside, her hand firm between his shoulders blades. It’s only when she starts introducing him to her family that Alan comes fully to himself, and smiles his warmest smile at everyone.
Aunt Natasha’s children – his cousins – rank from 8 to 14 years old. There’re the twins, Alicia and Anthony, as dark as their mother is fair, then shy Eleanor who blushes when Alan says hello, and little Bobby, easily as excited about his new cousin as the whole family together – except maybe for Aunt Natasha.
Aunt Natasha’s husband, William, is a big dark-haired man with a gentle voice – so much like Dad’s that it pierces through Alan’s hear like steel. Alan calls him “sir,” and the man burst into laughter, clapping on Alan’s shoulder hard enough that Alan nearly stumbles.
“Boy, call me Uncle William,” he says.
And just like that, Alan’s got a new family. The most astonishing thing is how much they seem to want him here. The children drag him to the living room and show him their Christmas tree. It’s almost tall enough to reach the ceiling, shining with multi-coloured electric garlands and topped by a silver angel.
“We decorated it ourselves,” Bobby says proudly.
“It’s beautiful,” Alan murmurs, and thinks about their own tiny tree that Alan decorated on his own, because Nick doesn’t understand what the big deal about Christmas is, and even less why they should bother with plastic crap all over their house, and Olivia wouldn’t notice either way.
Eleanor puts some trinket in his hand and tells him softly, her face crimson, “Put it on the tree. We all have ours in there.”
Alan looks down and sees that it’s actually a tiny picture with a golden frame and a string, ready to be hung. It takes him a few seconds to realise that the picture is one of himself, as a smiling toddler with tousled red hair. He looks up to see Aunt Natasha smile warmly at him.
“I found it when I sorted your mother’s things,” she says.
Alan swallows. “Thank you, Aunt Natasha.”
Dinner is roast beef and Yorkshire puddings – one of Dad’s favourites – and Alan savours the food with a pang of melancholy and a twinge of guilt, thinking of Nick left alone with Olivia and her hate.
At first, everyone is busy eating and making noises of appreciation, congratulating the cook – who is actually Uncle William – but as they make a pause in the meal before dessert, the questions start.
“So, Alan, you must be finished with high school, right?” asks Aunt Natasha. “I remember how bright you were as a kid, so I imagine that you’re going to university.”
Alan feels himself flush faintly. “No, I… I’m saving for it. I work at a library at the moment.”
“Didn’t you say that you were living with relatives of your dad? Can’t they help you?”
“They would, but they’re not very wealthy and I don’t want to inconvenience them.”
Aunt Natasha pinches her lips. “William and I…” She glances at her husband, who nods. “We can help.”
Alan’s mind flashes to the many arguments he had with Nick about his brother leaving school and working full time. Nick would want him to accept his aunt and uncle’s offer for money. They need it. But Nick can’t ever know about Aunt Natasha and Uncle William and his cousins.
He shakes his head. “Thank you, I really appreciate it but I’ll be all right.”
Thankfully, they don’t insist, but Alan suspects that they’re just biding their time and will offer again later. For the moment though, Aunt Natasha links her fingers together to rest her chin on them.
“Tell me about the people you live with,” she says. “I don’t think I remember Daniel having any siblings.”
“They’re his cousins. I contacted them after Dad died two years ago and they took me in.”
Alan spins tales about his father’s supposed cousins, about Amy who is a dreamer and spends even more time reading than Alan does, about her husband Patrick who’s half-French and down to earth, who doesn’t talk much but always seem to anticipate everyone’s needs. All the while Alan thinks about Nick and Olivia, whom he’s hiding like dark secrets. He imagines telling his aunt and uncle about Nick – he’s my brother, in everything but in blood because he’s a demon, possessing the body of the son of magicians; he doesn’t like words but he likes sharp things, likes blood and violence; if you ever met him he would hate you and you would be scared of him.
Alan keeps the thoughts separate and keeps smiling, remains cheerful all night long and almost manages to believe in his own stories. Later in the evening, when the children are asleep and Uncle William is in the bathroom, Aunt Natasha looks at Alan seriously and asks, “You never said… What happened to Daniel?”
Alan’s been expecting the question all evening. “It was a car accident,” he says evenly.
Aunt Natasha’s eyes flicker to his leg. “Is that how…?”
Aunt Natasha remains pensive for a moment. “You seem happy with you dad’s cousins but… You know we would be more than happy to have you stay with us.”
The pang of pain in Alan’s chest is sharp, as if one of Nick’s swords had cut through him. “I know,” he says. “But I’m very happy with them.”
“Well, in any case you’re more than welcome to come in Durham whenever you want to.”
He smiles. “I know. Thank you.”
Three days later Alan comes back home to find the house plunged in the dark and Nick sitting on the stairs, waiting.
“You can’t do this again,” Nick says, his voice low and hoarse with disuse.
Durham has faded like a dream now. Alan knows at this moment that he can’t ever go back. The house here is as dark and silent as a crypt but that is where he belongs, where he makes a difference because he can’t let the darkness win. He can’t let it have Nick.
“I won’t,” he tells his brother, and watches the taut line of Nick’s shoulders relax.
He wants to say he’s sorry, but his brother wouldn’t understand why. He also wants to hate him, but nothing in his life can ever be that easy.
It’s that moment, the one Alan has been working for, and he feels his mind get quiet for the first time in a very long time. It’s either the calm that comes with making the right decision, or the stress has finally got to him and what Alan’s feeling is the numbness of a mental breakdown. Either way, now is the time and there’s no going back.
Black Arthur is begging, “don’t do this!” It should alarm Alan to hear the man – the magician who let his lust of power devour him, an evil man if there are any – sound so close to desperation, but it barely registers. As much as Alan hates the man, he can’t forget that without him, he would never have had a brother.
Nick is standing in the middle of the magician circle, looking at him. Alan can’t tell what is on his mind but for once it doesn’t matter. All the shadows in the room seem to cling to Nick, drawn to his overwhelming power – the air is almost shimmering with it. And it doesn’t matter. To Alan’s eyes, this dark, frightening creature is nothing but his baby brother.
“Nicholas Rhyves,” he says, one last time.
I love you.
“I set you free.”
Then the world blacks out in a spark of pain.
Alan doesn’t even know how they manage to stumble back to their flat. They probably had to say goodbye to Cynthia and Mae and Jamie and… other people, but after a point, the moment when Alan woke up inside a summoning circle, things got a little blurry.
Alan isn’t unfamiliar with exhaustion – a lifetime of being on the run, having to learn how to handle a disability, not to talk about a passion for reading that filled many sleepless nights had seen to that. But what he’s feeling now is beyond exhaustion. Moving hurts, talking is too much of an effort. The battle has been won, Alan has survived what was supposed to be impossible to survive, but he’s too worn out to feel anything about it.
He looks at himself in the mirror as he goes through his nightly routine. It feels like he has fallen asleep to wake up twenty years later: lines at the corner of his eyes, grey strands in his hair. All the signs of age without the benefits of having lived through the years. At the moment, being all of nineteen, Alan feels every bit as old as he looks.
He goes to his room and lies on his bed, thinking about sleeping in it with Cynthia by his side, a lifetime ago. The thought of maybe having a lifetime of this awaiting him is enough to warm the ice in his veins a little. He’s about to drift to sleep when the door opens and Nick comes in.
Alan turns on his lamp, puts on his glasses and smiles tiredly at his brother. Nick goes to sit on the edge of his bed.
“I can’t sleep,” he declares.
Alan raises an eyebrow. Nick has never been one to be plagued by insomnia.
“Oh? What’s wrong?”
“Are you okay?” Nick asks, as if it was the natural reply to Alan’s enquiry.
“Shouldn’t I be the one to ask you that? You’ve never had any problem sleeping.”
Nick looks irritated, but now that Alan has a closer look at his brother, he can see that Nick looks as exhausted as Alan feels. He has used up a lot of power tonight, and Alan thinks how it wouldn’t affect Nick so badly if he hadn’t given up on part of his power for Alan.
“I’m not the one who was possessed for days,” Nick says, and Alan flinches. Nick doesn’t apologize for his bluntness.
They remain silent for a moment. It doesn’t seem to bother Nick, but the longer they don’t talk, the more Alan can think about the bits and pieces he remembers from his possession. He remembers fighting Nick. He remembers Anzu spilling out Alan’s deepest thoughts to his brother, telling the truth but in the worst possible manner, the way demons always do.
“Nick, about what Anzu said…”
“Anzu says a lot of things, generally speaking. He just doesn’t know when to shut up.”
There’s nothing in his tone or expression to betray whether he’s being deliberately obtuse.
“I’m talking about what he said about… About me. About me wanting to leave you.”
“I remember,” Nick says neutrally.
Alan takes a moment to ponder what he’s about to say. His first instinct, as natural to him as breathing, is to lie and tell Nick that there wasn’t a lick of truth in what Anzu said. But demons always tell the truth, and Alan has said enough lies to his brother.
“Mae’s been explaining some things to me, about human feelings,” Nick says suddenly, and Alan blinks in surprise. “She says that sometimes, people stop loving each other.”
Alan’s throat tightens so painfully that for a moment he can’t speak, can barely breathe.
Then very softly, as if Nick was a small child again, “Is that what you think? That I stopped loving you?”
Nick shrugs. He looks so indifferent to the idea that it’s easy for Alan to believe that he doesn’t care, but Nick doesn’t do small talk. He wouldn’t mention it if it wasn’t important.
“How would I know?” Nick says. “Very little about humans makes sense to me. I thought love was supposed to be eternal or something, but Mae says it isn’t and she would know better than I do.”
“Mae isn’t wrong, but I…”
I love you. Always have, and always will. Saying it will mean nothing to Nick, and Alan has never realised it as clearly as he does right now. Because Alan’s world is made of words, he’s never fully grasped that to Nick they are flimsy, treacherous things. And Nick has reasons to never believe a word that comes out of Alan’s mouth again.
“I thought about leaving you, as Anzu said. But I never did. And that’s what you have to remember. I never did.”
Nick’s eyes are fixed on him, his gaze intense and unrelenting.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I couldn’t leave you alone, and I couldn’t imagine my life without you.”
“Why? You would’ve been better off without me.”
“Really? Who knows what my life would have been without you and Olivia? Maybe it would have been wonderful, or maybe it would’ve been terrible. My mother was a normal person, and she died young, and a slow and painful death.”
“I’m still not sure I understand,” Nick says, sounding frustrated.
“Well, let’s consider this from another angle: after you learned the truth about you and I freed you, why didn’t you leave? You could’ve gone anywhere, done anything you wanted. You keep complaining about humans, and yet you stay with us. You hang out with Mae and Jamie, with Cynthia, with me.”
Nick frowns, and Alan holds his breath waiting for the answer. There’s something special about tonight, maybe the narrow escape they’ve had, maybe the fact that they’re both so exhausted that makes it possible to discuss things that they never usually would.
“I think I have,” Nick says. “Done what I wanted. I had all this power and I was finally free, I had done what no other demons had done before me, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than to go back to you.”
There’s no emotion in Nick’s voice as he says that, only plain truth stripped naked from anything else. Alan’s on the verge of tears but he does his best to contain them, doesn’t want to confuse his brother.
“You know what I think, Nick?” he asks, trying his best to keep his tone light.
“You mean in general, or right at the moment? Although I’ll have to answer no to both.”
Alan chuckles wetly. “What I think is that one thing is certain, without you my life would’ve been a lot more boring.”
Alan reaches out and pats Nick’s arm, and Nick keeps still and lets him do it. It stings a little to see that Nick has to brace himself for the contact and endure it, but at the same time Alan measures and appreciates the effort.
He’s overwhelmed by a wave of affection, exhaustion and mellow sadness. He’s always thought that in order to keep Nick he’d have to renounce everything else. Give up on his conscience, his chance at happiness and love, even on his life. And maybe he doesn’t have much of his soul left intact, and he’s lost so much, but he has also gained a lot. He has Cynthia, he has friends who know him for what he is, and last but not least, he has Nick’s love, as cold and alien as it is. All he can think about is this miracle he has been handed – Olivia, Black Arthur, Gerald, all the people who thought he was a dangerous fool, deluding himself; now they’re all gone, and Nick is still here with him.
Words of love burn Alan’s lips once more, but he merely squeezes his brother’s arm and lets go.
“Go to sleep, Nick.”
Nick gives him a look that says, think you can give me orders, huh? but he stands up without a word of protest.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” Alan says. “Fine but tired.”
Nick looks at him for a long moment, then nods and quietly leaves the room. At the soft click of the door shutting down, Alan closes his eyes and welcomes sleep.