“You can go ahead and move back into your own room now, you know,” Alan said carefully about a week after Mae and Jamie had finally gone home. They were both stretched out in their respective beds, and Nick had been listening to his brother read, to the whisper of turned pages and the thoughtful murmurs Alan made as he came across passages he found particularly fascinating.
“Oh?” Nick said off-handedly, glancing over. Alan’s eyes were glued to his book. “Yeah, I guess I could.”
He went back to throwing knives at the ceiling. The blades hit the plaster with satisfying thunks, sending slivers of paint drifting down onto the floor. He’d just gotten a new set and hadn’t quite gotten used to the balance yet. He needed the practice, and this was nice way to unwind. Another layer of white flakes sifted to the floor, and Nick grinned as he heard Alan shift, his bed creaking irritably.
“You don’t need to share with me,” Alan said, pointedly nonchalant. “You have your own room, where you can throw knives at whatever you want, whenever you want. I think you should move back in there.”
Nick rather thought he was getting better at telling when his brother was lying.
“Nah,” he said, and selected another knife, holding the thin blade between his fingers and frowning at it. He’d have to sharpen this one again. “I like your room better.”
“What?” Alan said, sounding a bit bewildered. Nick was briefly annoyed—he’d already said no. That seemed reasonably clear to him. But then, he had vehemently insisted on having his own room for the last nine years. He supposed the sudden shift in his preferences did seem a bit bizarre. A lot of his preferences had shifted recently, though. Alan would just have to get used to it.
“It’s a simple concept,” Nick said patiently, and threw a fifth knife at the ceiling. If he threw another three knives, he could make a happy face. “I don’t want to move back to my old room.” He threw the next knives in quick succession. “Oh, sorry. Am I bothering you?” he asked innocently.
“No, go right ahead. Keep it up,” Alan said pleasantly, closing his book and giving Nick his full attention. Nick smiled wider. “I don’t suppose you’ve given any thought as to how you’re going to get the knives off the ceiling?”
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Nick said. “Something clever, arcane. Maybe, oh, I don’t know. A footstool, perhaps?”
Alan rolled his eyes at Nick and went back to his book. Nick ran out of knives and lay back on his bed, listening to the quiet.
“It would make sense for you to move out, though,” Alan said after a few minutes. Nick didn’t think he’d actually been reading. The pages had turned, but there had been no happy noises of literary geekiness. “I know you like having your own space. You always have.”
Nick didn’t know what to say to that. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared up at the face on the ceiling. It looked fairly unimpressed.
“We’ll have two guest rooms this way,” Nick offered after a few beats. “We’re living in the lap of luxury.”
“Oh, yes, that’s definitely how I’d put it,” Alan replied drolly. “Water stains and scores of giant holes in the ceiling are all the rage this season.”
When Nick looked over, though, Alan was smiling crookedly. Nick took that to mean he could go on stashing his spare sword and whet stones and polishing cloths under Alan’s bed and ignoring all the complaints about the knife-throwing and the smell of engine oil emanating from the hamper. That worked for Nick. He was glad Alan had, for once, caved without asking too many questions, because Nick really didn’t want to talk about it.
The thing was, the second-tier mark had been gone for three weeks, and Alan was still having nightmares.
Nick heard him at night, watched him silently from the other bed as he struggled out of sleep. Every night Alan murmured hoarsely, hands twisting in the sheets. Most nights he woke himself up with a gasp and groped softly at the bedside table for his glasses. He always looked over at Nick’s bed after waking, always. Sometimes he got up, shuffled quietly across the room, pale and thin in striped pajamas and an oversized t-shirt, and stood over Nick. Nick watched beneath his lashes and never said anything—he didn’t think Alan knew how little he slept, these days. Sometimes Alan pulled the sheets tighter around Nick’s shoulders, sometimes he let his hand fall soft and warm on his brother’s chest, over the beating of his heart, and stood like that a long moment before limping back to his own bed.
He usually slept quieter after that, and then Nick could get up and pace, or go outside and try to wear himself out to the point where he could eventually fall back asleep himself.
Nick couldn’t help but think another human would know what to do, would understand what was going wrong and be able to fix it. There was no reason for Alan to be having nightmares that Nick could tell. No other demon could lay a claim on his brother, not with Nick in the room. And anyway, these weren’t demon-sent dreams. Nick had paid close attention, and Alan wasn’t in more pain than usual in the mornings, was even slowly gaining back the weight and color he’d lost when he had the second-tier mark.
Nick could only conclude that Alan was, for some incomprehensible reason, having ordinary human nightmares. For the first time in their lives they weren’t being chased by bloodthirsty magicians. They didn’t have to worry about Mum making a mess of things, or demon marks of any tier. They were short on money, it was true, but that was nothing new. Neither of them had died, and Nick had told Alan he wasn’t leaving.
It didn’t make sense for Alan to be having nightmares now. If Alan was going to have nightmares at all, surely it should have been before. It didn’t make sense, and Nick didn’t like it. Whatever was wrong, Nick wasn’t moving out of his brother’s room until it somehow went right.
Tonight, though, Alan seemed as cheerful and content as ever—except for the hollows beneath his eyes, which couldn’t lie the way his smile or voice did. In between attempts to badger Nick into getting up and removing all the “potentially deadly projectiles” from the ceiling, he read aloud bits and pieces of his book. He was always trying to stealth-educate Nick, usually with very little success. The sing-song cadence of Alan’s voice was nice, though, and anyway, Levantine mythology was actually sort of interesting. Nick liked Anat*, the goddess who rejoiced in battle and who laughed as she waded thigh-deep in the blood of her brother’s enemies.
“The smile on your face right now is incredibly disturbing,” Alan said at one point, pausing in the middle of a particularly gory passage.
“The Phoenicians knew how to have a good time,” Nick said placidly, pulling the last knife free of the plaster and tossing it down onto his bed. He brushed the dust off his hands and jumped off the stepstool, folding it up and leaning down to shove it back under Alan’s bed alongside the spare swords and boxes of cartridges. “Read me that bit again about the cloak of severed heads,” he called up.
“I think I’d better stop here,” Alan said wryly, and then reached over and brushed a flake of paint out of Nick’s hair. “I don’t want you taking your fashion tips from the Phoenicians.”
“Don’t worry,” Nick said, moving away from Alan’s hand and padding back to his own bed. He frowned absently at a small knick on one of the blades. He’d have to sand that out tomorrow, too. “Severed body parts are far too messy for every day. I’ll save it for special occasions.”
“I’m so reassured,” Alan said after a moment’s pause. Nick grinned and stretched out on his bed.
Alan started reading out loud again a few minutes later, clearly unable to resist the urge to babble on about parallels with Greek and Babylonian mythology. Nick crossed his arms behind his head and let his brother’s words wash over him, stories of rebirth and death, of love and murder and revenge and rain. The lamp on the bedside table cast a warm glow over Alan’s face as he read. He looked rumpled and content and not at all like a person who would probably wake up in a few hours, trembling and miserable.
Nick let Alan’s voice lull him into what passed as sleep for a demon living in a human body. Nick spent most nights in a light doze—he imagined it was sort of like how sharks slept: skimming the surface of sleep, never farther than a blood molecule from consciousness. He remembered what sleeping was like before Alan had set him free; deeper and slower, like being wrapped in a thick dark blanket. Now there was a constant thrum of electricity and ozone and history beneath Nick’s skin. It made it easy to wake up even before Alan began tossing and turning, easy to hear the tiny, unhappy sounds his brother made before he woke.
Nick opened his eyes. Across the room, his brother moaned again in his sleep, eyelids flickering and head tossing on his pillow. He looked younger without his glasses. The moonlight cast strange shadows on his face, outlines of leaves and windowpanes, and Nick wondered if he should get up. Shake Alan’s shoulder, take him out of whatever dream left that expression on his face.
“Please,” Alan said in a hoarse voice, and Nick froze. “Please.”
Alan had never said anything out loud before, just murmured restless words, soft and unintelligible. Nick watched as Alan pleaded again with the empty room, stretching out a hand in the darkness, face twisted and pained. When Alan woke with a shudder, hand closing on nothing, he made a low, terrible noise, and Nick felt his own hands clenching into useless fists.
Nick briefly considered punching the wall, but Alan was still awake, staring at the ceiling and breathing raggedly. It seemed like a long time before Alan’s breathing evened out. Nick found his sword and silently slipped out of the room. He needed to go hit something without having to worry he’d wake his brother again.
He should have known the nightmares wouldn’t stop on their own. Things never seemed to be that easy for them.
Yesterday morning he’d come into the kitchen and found Alan passed out face-first in his breakfast, which at the time had been hilarious. But eventually, Alan was going to fall asleep in the middle of something less amusing than buttered toast.
If things got much worse, Nick reflected distantly, savoring the dull burn in his muscles as he brought his sword down in a slow, deliberate arc, he was going to have to ask Mae or Jamie for help. Which was stupid. He shouldn’t have to ask anyone for help. This was his brother. This was Alan.
Nick was vaguely aware that he was staying outside longer than he usually did, but he didn’t much care. It was satisfying taking out his frustrations on the shadows he conjured, and finally he was panting and sweaty and tired enough to think about going back to bed. He was just pondering whether he should take a shower or if Alan deserved to wake up to the pungent aroma of unwashed brother when the backdoor slammed open, a violent cracking sound in the still summer air. Nick pivoted, sword ready and shadows ranged about him protectively, and then stopped short.
It was Alan, his face ghost-pale and eyes huge. Nick immediately felt all his hackles rise.
“What is it?” Nick asked urgently, stalking closer, scanning the windows of the house, sword raised and ready. Everything looked dark and still, but that didn’t mean much. “Are you okay?”
Alan closed his eyes. “A dream,” he said blankly, wrapping his arms around himself and sagging against the doorframe, apparently not yet awake enough to remember the encroaching thorn vines that snaked along the wood. He jerked away, staring down at his bleeding arm in faint bewilderment before looking back up at Nick. “It was a dream.”
“Well, you’re awake now,” Nick said, and sheathed his sword. He supposed there was no threat after all, except dreams and roses. A sword wouldn’t help with one, and he’d been forbidden from using a sword on the other. He’d wanted to hack down the damned climbing roses all summer—it was a nuisance keeping them pruned back from the door and it wasn’t like they were blooming. They were just ugly vines with wicked, curved thorns covering every millimeter of stem. But Alan insisted on keeping them, said that the landlord had told him they were yellow roses, said that they’d be beautiful.
Nick would have smugly renewed the argument now, except Alan was still standing in the doorway, swaying slightly, and now there were dark trails of red slowly dripping down his arm. Nick was definitely taking his sword to the stupid plants in the morning.
“What are you doing out here?” Nick asked.
“I had a bad dream,” Alan said, staring at the blood on his arm with his brow furrowed. He still looked half-asleep—now that Nick had gotten closer he could see Alan’s hair was tangled and sweaty, that his breath was coming in quick shallow pants. And, Nick noted in consternation, he hadn’t even grabbed a gun before dashing outside. “Why aren’t you in bed? I woke up and you were gone. I was— I worried.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Nick replied uncertainly. He felt uneasy. He wanted to draw his sword again, but Alan looked like he might topple over at any moment, and he would need both hands free for that. “There’s no reason to be worried. I don’t think Gerald wants to come after us, and anyway, I’d protect you. You—” Alan was swaying again, and Nick did have to reach out and catch his arm before he tumbled back into the damned thorns. “You should go back to bed,” he finished, frowning.
“Yes, right,” Alan said, and leaned against him. Nick herded him back into the darkened kitchen. He found a light, and a first aid kit, and began dabbing gingerly at the scratches with peroxide.
“So, you’re obviously not all right,” Nick pointed out when all the wounds had been cleansed and plastered. Alan shook his head, then yawned and patted Nick’s shoulder.
“Everything’s fine now,” he said drowsily.
“You didn’t even bring your gun downstairs!” Nick said, exasperated, and was even more annoyed when Alan let out a startled laugh.
“I didn’t?” he said. “Well, that’s embarrassing. But really, I’m fine. Just a bit tired.”
Nick wasn’t amused. He levered Alan back up to his feet and began hauling him upstairs. He doubted Alan needed the help now that he was more awake, but if he’d come dashing out into the middle of the night without any weapons, anything was clearly possible. He let Alan lean into him, a warm weight against his side as they headed slowly up the stairs.
“You have nightmares,” he said into the darkness of the stairwell, voice raw and creaking. He focused on the next few steps, and then, when Alan didn’t reply, spoke up again, frustrated. “That’s not ‘fine.’”
“I’m just being stupid,” Alan said after they’d reached the top of the stairs. “It’s just—I’m glad you’re still here.”
“I am going to take a flying leap and assume you don’t mean here in the hallway,” Nick said after a moment. He was grimly certain that he was missing some vital bit of information. He let go of Alan’s arm and watched his brother wobble briefly before straightening and heading towards their shared room.
“No,” Alan agreed, and obviously the thing to do would have been to follow that with some sort of explanation of what exactly he did mean. Nick stared at Alan and waited to be enlightened, but Alan stayed stubbornly silent, mouth tight and eyes unreadable.
“Where else would I be?” Nick asked finally, exasperated.
“I don’t know,” Alan said, and he looked oddly vulnerable in the light of the bedside lamp, a smudge of blood on his cheek and glasses perched low on his nose. “Anywhere. Look, I told you. It’s stupid. Everything’s fine, everything ended up fine, but I—I guess my subconscious hasn’t gotten the memo yet.” He smiled faintly. “I’m sure it’ll catch up eventually.”
Nick stared at him helplessly, and Alan ran a hand through his hair, making the sweaty tufts stand up ridiculously.
“Just—I keep thinking about what—what could have happened. If I’d done the wrong thing. If you hadn’t come back.” Alan laughed a little, a small fake laugh that fell flatly into the room. “But you did, so. It’s silly,” Alan said, shrugging and not meeting Nick’s eyes. “Don’t let it bother you. It’s not a big deal.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Nick said, and Alan’s mouth twisted a little and Nick frowned.
“You need more sleep,” he tried again, but Alan just nodded in agreement and climbed back into his bed, shaking out his disarrayed sheets and settling down. Nick came to stand next to him, leaning against the bedframe and scowling. He was certain there were words for this, if he could only find them.
Alan smiled up at him, but his expression looked strangely fragile, as though it could shatter into dust with the wrong word. “Is this where you offer me a bedtime story?” he asked. “Maybe some warm milk?”
Nick rolled his eyes, but then he remembered Alan telling him stories when he was younger, remembered lying in bed watching his brother’s mouth move, the soothing, incomprehensible patter of words sending him to sleep. He couldn’t remember any of the stories, but, ironically, he was almost sure some of them involved thorns. He sat gingerly on the edge of Alan’s bed, ignoring the way his brother’s eyes widened in surprise.
Alan fell asleep again before Nick could get halfway through the Story of the How the Epically Ugly Roses Were Mysteriously Hacked to Bits Overnight. He stared for a moment, then clumsily tugged Alan’s sheets up a little higher before retreating back to his own bed. He stared at the pattern of holes decorating their ceiling and resisted the urge to drag out his set of throwing knives again, drummed his restless fingers against his own chest instead.
The stupid face on the ceiling suddenly looked a lot like it was smirking. Nick scowled at it. Alan was his brother. Alan had given him words, and held his hand when he crossed the street, and set him free.
Nick heaved out a sigh and sat back up again. He would figure this out, and bring Alan’s subconscious up to date, and then everything would be fine.
First things first, though. He checked to make sure Alan was still asleep, and then got out his sword and went to deal with the roses.
The next morning was slightly awkward. Alan didn’t seem inclined to talk, and Nick wasn’t certain how to start the conversation.
“You’re looking a little less corpse-like these days,” he finally said over his bowl of cereal, prodding the stale flakes moodily. They were running low on money for groceries again, but when he’d offered to find funds some other way, flexing his fingers thoughtfully and watching lightning spark at his fingertips, Alan had had an enormous stroppy fit and spent the next hour lecturing Nick on moral responsibility and the rights of man and probably a load of other things that Nick had managed to tune out, but which he thought boiled down to “Please don’t steal the crown jewels, or I will ramble at you until your ears bleed.”
Alan’s exasperation had been strangely comforting, familiar, but Nick wasn’t in a hurry to bring up his demonic deficiencies that morning.
“You say the sweetest things,” Alan replied, looking up and batting his eyes briefly before turning back towards the stack of scrolls at the table. He seemed more tired than usual, but when Nick blew him a sardonic kiss, he looked up and grinned, eyes sparkling. Nick relaxed minutely and began eating again.
“I try,” Nick said around a chewy mouthful. Actually, Alan did look a bit better. More like an insomniac and less like a zombie. There was maybe a slight chance that Jamie and Mae wouldn’t take one look at Alan tomorrow and set up a giant worried fuss.
The Crawfords came by every Friday for a ‘Sumerian lesson.’ Nick didn’t know why they bothered calling it that when everyone knew it would devolve into lounging on the couches and watching people do boring things on television.
Still, Jamie usually lugged along giant bags of groceries to their ‘lessons,’ so at least it wasn’t a total waste. Jamie would make hugely innocent eyes and say something transparently false about having bought too much milk and bread and other assorted staples. The Ryves should just go ahead and keep them! Otherwise they’d just go bad! And that was to go along with what he called “traditional revising food,” which apparently involved a staggering amount of crisps and biscuits and soda. Nick appreciated this, even though Alan usually set up a token, futile protest. He just hoped Jamie brought chocolate this time instead of wine gums.
Wine gums. And people called Nick inhuman.
“Aren’t you supposed to be leaving for the garage soon?” Alan asked, interrupting Nick’s contemplation on Jamie’s twisted psyche. Alan stretched with a wince and gingerly shoved the stack of scrolls to the side. The skin beneath his eyes was smudged and bruised, and one of the thorn scratches on his wrist had started bleeding again, red staining through the white bandage.
“No,” Nick said carefully, and wrestled with himself a moment. He stared at the tabletop, old and scarred and worn, traced a finger along a wave-like loop. “Not today. Earl said I could have a few days off if I worked during Wimbledon.”
“Gosh, I can’t believe you gave that up,” Alan said absently, frowning down at his notes. “And you such a tennis fiend.”
“Hey, I like tennis,” Nick said mildly.
“You just like the girls in their tennis skirts,” Alan said, cocking an eyebrow.
“Which means I like tennis,“ Nick said, frowning at his cereal bowl. He’d forgotten about the tennis skirts, but it was too late to back out now. Anyway, he was sure there would be other girls in other skirts in his future. No big loss, really.
Alan started gathering up the breakfast things, humming a little to himself as he put them away. As he passed, he hesitantly stretched out a hand to ruffle Nick’s hair. Nick remembered Jamie and Mae, their easy language of touch and warmth, and held himself still. It was only a moment, anyway, and then Alan was at the sink, setting up a too-loud clatter of dishes and water.
“We should do something today,” Alan said. “See if we can track down another one of Dad’s contacts, someone off the beaten path who hasn’t heard or wouldn’t care—“
“I want you to stop having nightmares,” Nick interrupted, surprising himself. Alan had fallen completely silent, and the sound of running water sounded strangely loud in the small room. Nick stared harder at the table. There was another long, curling scratch that looked a little like a beetle. He wondered if Thomas had died yet, or if Ruth was still in that dungeon house, pale-faced and hopeless and unmovable. “You’re not sleeping enough. It’s not good for you.”
“I’m fine,” Alan said after a moment. “I told you, you don’t need to worry about it.”
Nick decided now would be a good time to sharpen a knife or two. He leaned over and snagged the whetstone out of the fruit bowl. The scraping sound of the blade against the stone filled the silence of the kitchen, and Nick focused on the familiar motion of his own hands.
“You shouldn’t be having nightmares anymore,” Nick said between strokes. “There’s no reason to have nightmares. So stop.”
When he glanced up, Alan was leaning heavily against the sink, hair falling in his eyes. He was limned by the early morning sun coming through the window, and most of his face was shadow. Nick thought that probably most humans wouldn’t have been able to see how Alan was biting his lower lip.
“It doesn’t work like that, Nick,” Alan said finally, and turned around and went back to scrubbing the already clean dishes. “It’s just delayed stress. It’ll go away on its own, eventually.” Another soapy pause, and then he said lightly, looking over his shoulder and smiling, “It’s nice of you to worry, though.”
“You’re such an idiot,” Nick said under his breath despairingly, because Alan was, and now Nick was going to have to spend the day being bored to death just because humans didn’t actually listen when you said things the first time around, had the ridiculous habit of needing to hear the same thing over and over again. Alan was stuck with a demon for a brother, though, and this was the best Nick could think to do.
“We could go to the museum today,” Nick said defeatedly, and scowled when Alan turned and stared at him. “You don’t have to go into the shop. I don’t have work. We could go to the museum.”
“The museum,” Alan said. He was dripping dishwater all over the floor. Nick watched the puddles form for a minute and then got up to fetch a towel. “You want to go to the museum.”
“Yes. You know, place with dead things and old things and general obsolescence. Dinosaurs. Whatever.” He directed this remark at Alan’s feet, and thought distantly that Alan needed new trainers. The soles of these were beginning to come unglued again.
“You hate museums,” Alan said. “You haven’t voluntarily gone into one since you were eight.”
Nick sighed and straightened, tossing the damp dishrag on the counter.
“You haven’t been sleeping,” he said, folding his arms over his chest and looking pointedly over Alan’s shoulder. “I thought if we went somewhere extremely boring it might help.”
Alan was still boggling at him. “I have been sleeping,” he protested faintly, but there was a faint flush to his cheeks and a tiny smile creeping onto his face.
“You haven’t been sleeping well,” Nick grumbled. “Look, if you don’t want to, I promise, that is really, entirely okay with me. But I’ll go. If you want.”
“You’re voluntarily going to a museum with me,” Alan said, smile spreading across his face. “No backing out?”
Nick glared at him, but Alan’s smile only grew wider. “No,” Nick said reluctantly. “No backing out.”
“You have all day free, right?”
“Yes,” Nick said gloomily. If this didn’t help, Nick was going to try drugs next. Possibly illegal ones.
“Let me just grab my notebook and we’ll go,” Alan said. Of course Alan would take notes in a museum. Of course. Maybe the lack of sleep would tire him out, and Nick wouldn’t have to hear the story of every single item and its cultural significance to the whole of Western Civilization.
Maybe just half the items.
“You’ll like the Arms and Armor exhibit,” Alan called over his shoulder as he rummaged in a drawer. “If you promise not to kill, maim, or otherwise wound any of the other patrons, we can go to that exhibit first.”
“I promise not to kill anyone that doesn’t deserve it,” Nick hedged, and Alan raised an eyebrow but let it pass, which, Nick supposed, meant he really was in a good mood.
He went to pull his lightning-forged blade from beneath the sink. If he was going to be stuck in a damned museum all day, he wanted his sword with him, just in case there was a bunch of geeky magicians or errant groups of shrieking first formers loitering around. He’d cloak the hilt in shadows and no one would be the wiser.
“I sincerely doubt you’ll need your sword at the British Museum,” Alan said happily, as though he wasn’t hiding one gun and at least two knives on his person. His eyes were bright behind his glasses, and he was obviously already plotting long boring lectures about each exhibit. Nick resigned himself to this, and focused on the way Alan was beaming at him instead. This was good. He could do museums, if it made Alan happy.
"A man can dream, can’t he?” Nick said, and let his brother tow him outside into the sunshine.