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The Art of Two-Tone Tenderness

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I.

“What’s this supposed to be then, a botched resurrection?”

The words carry like thick static in cotton wool, assaulting him as soon as his eyes slide open just a fraction before rolling back into his skull again, the light too bright to handle. Silas groans, briefly wondering if it’s too late to deliberately slip into a coma. He’s certainly had enough paracetamol to accidentally kick the bucket, but here he is: still alive against all the odds, being pissed on by the world at large, which has conveniently taken on the shape of his brother.

Normally, that would warrant more than a few choice words, but in the blissful little void that is his fever addled brain, all the expletives seem to have dissipated in the fog of an ever-expanding universe so that Silas manages to bite out exactly two words.

“Fuck off,” he says, spitting on the F’s to keep them from tumbling off his tongue prematurely. It still sounds pitiful and comes out more than a little slurred, which he attributes to that last spoonful of benadryl.

Somewhere in the room, Arkem’s suit cuts a shadow into the wall.

“I’ll take it under consideration,” he says, on the move again and far too loud in the confines of Silas’ bedroom, “In the meantime, would you prefer your tea with extra honey, lemon, or both?”

“I’d prefer you to get out of my fucking flat,” Silas says, pleased to find his brain-to-mouth pipeline seems to be back online again, even if half the words are irreparably distorted by the pillows he mutters them into. “Why are you here?”

“Primarily? Because you haven’t been answering your phone and Mummy is going to give me a class A bollocking if I let you die in your own filth. But now that I’m actually here, I think I might retrieve all the books you’ve stolen off me instead and call it a night.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Silas says and Arkem does his little shark turn at the foot of the bed — circling, circling, always fucking circling — to give him his trademark look of disbelief, the one that used to be Mummy’s and says, “Go on then, dig your own grave. I’ll wait.”

“I wouldn’t want anything of yours by association alone,” Silas snaps like he’s all of five years old and hates himself for it.

“That would certainly explain why there are no less than six volumes of Calryn’s anthologies with m y annotations spread out on your living room floor, no?”

Silas doesn’t dignify that with an answer, just glares in Arkem’s general direction and, because his brother is clearly not going to let this go, forces himself to sit up. He spends a moment trying to discern what day it is, fairly certain he’s lost one or two to hallucinating purple spots on the corridor walls when he last went to get a glass of water.

It was dark outside then – dead of night, not the pinkish dusk staining the sky now – and he realises he probably hasn’t gotten out of bed in the last fourteen hours, not even for a wee and that can’t possibly be good. His body agrees, threatening to tilt sideways when he goes to stand up.

Had this happened on another other day, he would’ve landed face first on the floor, but tonight, he has the exclusive misfortune of ending up propped against Arkem’s side at an awkward angle, his brother’s hands catching him with a bruising grip. It’s probably for the best (for one, it stops him from lobotomizing himself on the edge of the dresser), but Silas still feels the need to grumble, “Don’t fucking touch me,” and sway the other way.

“Can you stop being a twat for one second?” Arkem snipes back, “I’m only trying to help.”

“Which no one asked you to do.”

“Indeed. I’ll just make sure to let you crack your skull open on the bedside table next time unless you specifically ask me not to. God,” he says, shifting Silas’ weight off his arm onto his shoulder, “you’ve got about as much structural integrity as a pot of overcooked spaghetti. Will you just hold still ?”

“I’m fine,” Silas insists, but his voice is all wrong (hoarse and nasal like it’s coming out of the guts of a dying whale) and he can’t see straight. Despite that, he’s determined to untangle himself by willing his head to comprehend concepts of direction and balance and gravity .

Arkem says, “Yes, I can see that,” with a degree of sarcasm that is normally reserved for round five of any given argument. Silas wonders if he hasn’t somehow lost four of those steps in the soup that is his brain, but decides he’s too dehydrated to care.

Arkem says: “You look like shit, by the way.” Silas counters with, “Thanks, so do you. Now get out.”

He actually manages to gesture in the general direction of the door, not that it does much for Arkem, who seems, if anything, more determined to stay, standing there with his arms crossed, waiting for Silas to cave in. It’s so insultingly patronising even for Arkem that Silas barks, “Are you deaf?” because he can’t think of any other reason his brother would be caught being so obviously obtuse.

“You’re ill,” Arkem tries again, with a mix of pity and dismissal usually reserved for the elderly and confused.

Inhaling sharply enough to finally alert his body of the fact that he is awake and conscious, Silas snarls, “It’s a cold ,” and promptly dissolves into a coughing fit.

It’s wet and dreadful, looks and sounds like an exorcism being performed on a swamp, and (rather embarrassingly) counteracts his main point, which is that he is abso- fucking -lutely fine , thank you very much.

Arkem, innocent and swift, but with a mile of consequences, quips, “That is presumably why you’ve drafted your own obituary?”

Silas would ask what on earth he’s talking about, if the bastard weren’t already waving a crumpled note covered in Silas’ own writing in front of him, waving the white flag for him tauntingly.

“Where did you—?” he starts and then doesn’t ask, because the paper is the same lined, bile yellow colour of the notepad on his bedside table.

He snatches the note out of Arkem’s hand to look at his delirious, fever shrouded thoughts: the intermingled first and third person odes with illegible pleas scratched into the margins like desperate addenda. When he jostles his skull for any memory of writing it, there’s only a sloppy line of black ink cutting across his palm and a lot of darkness.

“This doesn’t mean anything,” Silas says even though the words he can read paint a remarkably clear picture.

If Arkem sees through him, he doesn’t push it. Instead, he says, “I’ll put the kettle on,” and disappears into the doorway.

 

II.

Having parted with half the contents of his lungs over the bathroom sink, Silas discovers he’s lost not one and not two days but a whole fucking weekend. He sits on the toilet lid, cool porcelain of the sink sending shivers through his body where he’s resting his forehead against it, trying to catch his breath. It feels wretched and nauseating, spit thick on his tongue, so he distracts himself by going through the endless backlog of notifications on his phone to discern when Saturday turned into Tuesday without his permission.

The whole thing reads like a Fibonacci spiral of worry unearthed in reverse, dozens of missed calls and cryptid texts from his brother preceded by sparse office hour calls from unknown numbers and, before that, e-mails from his tutors with increasingly impatient subject headings. The last untouched item on the screen is from Friday morning 5:08am. Silas starts coughing again, the iron clamp around his ribcage sending his entire body into a panic and his vision blurs again, the days and hours he’s lost going with it.

For a singular moment in time, he thinks passing out and dying on the bathroom floor would be a blessing, because he’s so royally screwed he can’t even begin to comprehend it. Then he remembers Arkem is still sat out in his kitchen and the prospect of being found there on the moldy tiles to be cried on and shouted at while he’s being performed shoddy CPR on is so humiliating, Silas rights himself with a vice grip on the sink and gets on with it.

 

III.

Arkem makes the tea too sweet on purpose and doesn’t apologise. At the glare Silas shoots him, he shoves a bowl of thawing strawberries stolen out of a box in the freezer labelled in Mummy’s neat scripture at him. Silas pops one onto his tongue and waits for the numbness to set in.

Arkem says: “You should see a doctor. You sound like you’ve caught the plague.” He keeps his eyes averted and trained on his own mug where the spoon goes round and round with a noise like creaky old carousel at the village fair.

“If I lose my voice, it’s only because of how many times I’ve had to tell you I’m fine .”

“I’m not letting this go. For every day you don’t go, I’ll be the one to check-in on you,” Arkem says over him, kindness and concern turned to blackmail in his mouth.

“I’ll change the locks,” says Silas.

“That’s no obstacle. I’m the one who taught you how to pick them in the first place; don’t think I don’t remember the tricks of the trade. Besides, you can’t afford a locksmith.”

“I’ll have you arrested then.”

“With the state you’re in, I’m well within my rights trespassing on grounds of fraternal concern.”

Backed into a corner, Silas’ molars sink into the half-thawed flesh of a strawberry and, as he thinks, grind through to the core with a crunch.

Arkem says: “I don’t know why you bother wasting your energy. I’m here strictly on Mummy’s orders.”

“Yes, that figures. You’re too much of a coward to stray outside her narrow sphere of approval.”

“Coming from you, that’s rich, not that I need a reason to defy her,” Arkem says, “As you’re aware, Mummy does know best, and this macho schtick? It isn’t for you and I.”

“Boys of a matriarchy,” Silas muses, forgetting he’s supposed to be angry and then he’s coughing again.

“Precisely,” Arkem says as Silas takes a long gulp of tea that’s scalding on his tongue and just right against the roof of his mouth. When the two surfaces brush against each other, everything in his mouth feels raw and swollen even though his throat feels better, and Silas thinks there might be something to Arkem’s worry.

He doesn’t want to think about that though – certainly isn’t going to admit to anything – so he snatches up another strawberry to suck on. Halfway through the bowl, Arkem makes them both a second cup of tea and decides to potter about the kitchen instead of sitting back down, because there is only so much silent staring they can do, and the sound of mugs being rearranged to make more space for the ones littering the sink is a distraction as good as any other.

“Are you going to tell Mummy?” Silas asks quietly when Arkem finally sits down to drink his tea.

“About what?” Arkem asks, still the same little shit he’s always been.

Silas could say, “You know,” but he’s off his game and it’s a risky move even when he’s not, so he says, “This,” instead, gesturing at himself with the hand that isn’t wrapped around the handle of his favourite mug. It’s still a vague answer at best, but also a surrender of sorts, so Arkem takes it.

“No,” he says, “not yet. You have until Friday morning and then it’s either the doctor or Mummy.” It’s both a benevolent gesture and fair warning, terms and conditions laid out on the table unambiguously.

“Okay,” says Silas.

There’s room to try to wriggle out of it later, but for now, all he wants is to crawl back into bed. He waits for Arkem to take his leave before he does though, defiantly and barely upright against the living room wall as he watches his brother reassemble himself for the outside world: eight buttons on a double breasted wool coat, the red scarf Silas watched him unwrap last Christmas, and a pair of shoes he didn’t realise Arkem had taken off, the intimacy of it disturbing in hindsight, because it renders him entirely too soft.

 

IV.

The next time Silas has a fully formed thought, it’s the pressing awareness of his bladder. The curtains are drawn shut and he’s lost another day and his lungs feel like lead. He rolls onto his back and his stomach gives off a pitiful rumble as though it hasn’t been fed in so long, it’s given up on complaining in favour of flat out begging , and for a moment he wishes Arkem were there herding him into the kitchen to a plateful of steaming soup.

The thought corrects itself into a memory – Silas, seven years old, moaning something into Mummy’s arm as she dragged him downstairs to eat, Arkem’s voice in the sitting room still prepubescent and emotive – and he wonders when he’s transplanted the image of his brother onto his mother.

Neither one is here now. He’s grown and been left to his own devices, and Silas struggles valiantly to get out bed and cook his own bloody dinner. It turns out he doesn’t have to, because Arkem has been by in the time he was out to stock the fridge with microwaveable meals and fruit packs stacked neatly on the top shelf. He’s even replaced the carton of milk that went bad days ago and which Silas never got around to throwing out.

It’s too much to consider all at once — all the colours and variety and the thoughtfulness — so Silas shoves the door shut and boils the kettle to make a bowl of instant oatmeal instead.

He only eats half of it, but it gets him to brave a little bowl of fruit salad – wedges of apples, melon chunks, and grapes eaten in bed, the noxious glow of the street lights outside keeping him company.

Afterwards, he doesn’t sleep again for hours, the clock ticking to seven, eight, nine.

He pulls his laptop into bed with him and catches up on the steady stream of disgruntled and worried e-mails from professors and tutors alike, letting them each know he’s still alive with a copy-pasted three liner in which the details change and the typos persist. It takes longer than it should and wears him out fast, so that by the time he checks his personal e-mail on the off-chance that something important has come through, he’s too tired to bother with the e-mail from Arkem inquiring about his health. If it means having his door broken down in the middle of the night by the paramedics, so be it.

He does make the effort to carry the dishes out the kitchen though, leaving evidence for Arkem that he’s been up and about in his absence in the hopes he’ll be left alone if he comes around again.

 

V.

Thursday comes in softly, calling his name, a disembodied whisper in his ear. He’s drawn out of his dreams by a cool hand pressed against his forehead and the sea sick swaying of his shoulder back and forth under a cupped palm.

“Silas.”

“Mmh?”

He turns toward the sound, not realising it’s Arkem’s voice until he opens his eyes.

“You’re on fire,” his brother says so softly it’s frightening.

Not knowing what to say to that, Silas shakes his head, frowning when pain blossoms dully in the recesses of his skull. His nose is blocked shut and it seems there’s hardly any air in the room at all, or perhaps that’s simply him struggling to breathe. There’s a pressure under his skin and inside the bone, a weight nestled deep in his chest, crowding his lungs so his breaths come out sharp and shallow.

Silas wonders if he can speak at all, but if he doesn’t, Arkem’s going to keep looking at him with wide, worried eyes and that would be catastrophic, so he grits his teeth, closes his eyes, utters a quick, silent prayer to whichever deity might be listening and croaks: “You said I have until Friday.”

The words rumble strangely in his chest and are nothing short of a desperate plea. It doesn’t matter though, because an agreement is an agreement, and outside this sick room, they’re living in fragile times.

At thirty-eight-point-three degrees, Silas may be pliable and compliant, but even Arkem knows not to push his luck too far. He says, “You do,” but adds, “I still want to see you get up and eat something though.”

In response, Silas opens his eyes just to roll them at him.

If he could trust his voice, he’d ask what this sudden obsession with food is even though he already knows the answer. It’s the reason they fight in the first place, when he isn’t on the brink of death. It’s why he hurled his textbook at Arkem’s living room wall the other week and hasn’t spoken to him since.

But Silas has more to worry about than just how much flesh there is coating his ribs, so he gives in with a resigned shrug and holds out his arms in a silent plea for help.

Getting out of bed is a task and a half. The tides inside him shift, gravity playing a cruel trick on formerly hollow spaces, and Silas ends up doubled over with an undignified hacking cough, his fingers intuitively twisting into the fabric of Arkem’s shirt, seeking ancient comforts.

Though he’d be reluctant to admit it, the hand on his back does help.

When he’s done, he wheezes, “Not a word,” and the hoarseness of his voice almost sounds like the venom he can’t quite manage.

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“But you thought it,” he says and shuffles forwards and away from Arkem.

“Silas-”

“Why did they call you anyway?”

“Who?”

“The university.”

“No one’s had a sign of life from you in ten days and apparently you’ve missed two assignment deadlines without notice. Personally, I’d wager that call was long overdue.”

“The Suspect Conduct Protocol went out of commission after I turned eighteen.”

“Well, someone saw it fit to call me anyway and, quite frankly, I’m glad they did. I don’t know what you were thinking wilting away here like this. You would probably have irreparably damaged a kidney by now if I hadn’t come ‘round to get some water into you.”

Silas scoffs, coughs, and says: “I’m not that helpless.”

“No, I’m sure you would happily have lived off of the three stale biscuits that were the sole food left in your cupboard before I did a shop for you,” Arkem says sarcastically and Silas glares at him because he doesn’t want to admit it’s a thought that did cross his mind during a particularly lucid moment on Sunday night.

“I did send everyone at university e-mails last night,” he says petulantly, as if it’s anywhere near adequate for atonement.

“What do you expect, Silas, a standing ovation? I wasn’t going to mount your defence anyway.”

Arkem serves him a slice of toast (liberally buttered, but not soggy) and Silas shoots him another death glare. The glass of juice that follows is so bitter, Silas gags, memories of bile streaking the toilet bowl flashing through his mind.

“What the hell is this?”

“Grapefruit juice. You need your vitamins.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“No, it’s called being healthy.”

Mouth full of toast, Silas flips him off in lieu of a reply.

Arkem just shakes his head, Silas’ antics no longer a surprise after years and years of petty abuse. He wipes the counter and, satisfied Silas has gotten through at least 70% of something resembling a meal, leaves for work.

 

VI.

By the time he’s fought through the remainder of breakfast, the weariness of being up and about has dissipated. Maybe all it took really was only some deep breaths and little something in the way of nutrition. He wouldn’t exactly say he feels energetic, but he does feel well enough to slump down on the sofa instead of crawling back into bed, and that has to be improvement.

Being awake and home in the middle of a weekday morning is bizarre, like being home on Christmas morning after a long term, everything quiet and bright and gaping empty. It’s late enough for the morning commute to have died down, so Silas opens a window and takes some time to breathe spring in. In the building on the opposite side of the street, someone on the fifth floor has left the window open and Silas watches the curtains fluttering inside, tossed about by the same wind that caresses his face.

 

It occurs to him he’s conscious and not suffocating under the sheets for the first time in days and it’s the sort of realisation that lingers – a long, fragile moment that goes on and on until it doesn’t.

At some point, the world starts coming back into focus, zooming in from the edges to catalogue the subtle changes of a week lost. The houses outside turn into his kitchen: mugs from yesterday drying by the sink, the bag of tangerines Arkem has left on the counter for him, the way one of the chairs isn’t pushed close to the table but maintains the respectful two-inch distance Arkem’s cultivated around his own kitchen table.

In the living room, the floor is suspiciously empty and Silas finds his papers from last week gathered into a pile at the foot of the sofa, little stacks or single pages layered at ninety degree angles in an attempt to preserve the method of his madness while retaining a general order.

Normally, he’d finds Arkem’s interference with his work annoying — it’s the very reason he never sets up anything elaborate when he decides to work over at his place after class instead of heading home.

The original network is impossible to replicate once torn down, the organic distances and relation between his papers lost in translation, sometimes to a degree where he can’t latch onto his ideas properly anymore when, cut loose and chopped up like that. His thoughts are an innervated, ever evolving mess of scattered papers, post-it notes, and books laid flat on their backs with the spines creaking and the mess is just as important to his working process as the near constant perfusion of noise in his flat lecture replays, audio notes, and the odd ‘70s playlist filling the space with his very own background radiation.

His quiet moments are reserved almost exclusively for Arkem, just Silas and his notebook, sitting on the living room floor at his flat, hunched over the coffee table slowly chipping away at a half-formed idea like a sculptor trying to unveil his very own Pietà before the afternoon fades away. The peace is foreign in his own home but not unwelcome and Silas basks in it for a long time.



VII.

For all the annoyance he causes, Arkem can be astonishingly practical at times. That evening, he drops by with two packs of throat lozenges and an inhaler stick. It’s long after dark when he comes by, already hours since Silas has gotten bored and unravelled the living room into its usual state, though not very long since he finally gave up on trying to make any sense of it and retreated back into his bedroom.

When he sees Arkem with the little pharmacy plastic bag in his hands, he accidentally confesses, “You’re a godsend,” brain-to-mouth filter temporarily offline, but, shredding the carton back of the inhaler pack to take two long, greedy, menthol infused breaths – the first deep lungful he’s had in days – he can’t bring himself to care.

“I see you’ve been busy today,” Arkem comments casually, having diverted his attention to the knick knacks on Silas dresser so he doesn’t have to watch him shove a plastic stick halfway up to his brain.

“Don’t worry, it wasn’t nearly as productive as it looks.”

“Oh dear, did you just admit to being a fallible creature?” he asks, a humorous note slipping into his voice after a long day, composure coming undone along with the office tie.

“How does your boss feel about you leaving work before seven?”

“Nothing at all, I presume. He’s been gone since two, so I wouldn’t worry too much even if someone had the guts to snitch on me.”

“Well, the kids at school were always quick to rat you out. Perhaps it translates; you do have a penchant for being in bad repute.”

Arkem’s inability to truly connect with other people on anything resembling a meaningful level has always been a chink in his armour, though Silas gives it more weight than it warrants, because Arkem personally isn’t too fussed. Still, Silas will take any signs of maladjustment he can get. It’s only fair with how Arkem picks him apart on a regular basis, their lives splayed wide open on the dinner table, bloody and gutted between their plates of portobello mushroom linguine.

“Perhaps I am little short on alliances,” Arkem admits as though it’s a thought that’s only just occurred to him, “I’m not any worse off for it.”

“Now now, I really think you could do better.”

“No doubt, although that would require going to actual social functions, which wouldn’t sit well with your tendency to show up on my doorstep at random.”

“I only come over because your neighbours worry you’re going to shoot yourself one evening with how often you sit alone at your kitchen table at 3am looking like shit. They’re probably relieved to know there’s someone else whose job it’s going to be to discover your bloated remains.”

“You’re disgusting,” Arkem says, but chooses not to retort. Instead, he offers Silas a lozenge and uses the ensuing silence to undo his tie properly from the loose noose he’s left it hanging in and tucks into his breast pocket before discarding the jacket too. “Have you eaten anything since I left?”

“No,” Silas says point blank. After stocking the kitchen for him on Tuesday, Arkem probably has an inventory of the entire thing, so Silas doesn’t see the point in lying.

Arkem simply sighs. “No, that would’ve been too much to ask.”

“If you ever had asked,” Silas points out, the lozenge clunking against his teeth, “I might have.”

“You absolutely would not have, because you’re a menace..”

“I’m ill. My appetite is gone.”

It’s true in more ways than one even if that isn’t what Silas meant and Arkem’s expression sobers up into something ugly that makes Silas turn his head away. Deciding it’s not worth picking their name brand fight right now (You’re positively melting! ), Arkem says, “I’ll heat something up,” and Silas offers his compliance as a sign of gratitude.

 

VIII.

They end up on the sofa this time, Silas clearing his throat between spoonfuls of tomato soup, trying not to cough on account of his throat or gag thanks to the gnocchi which Arkem threw into the bowl to fatten him up now sticking to his teeth. Getting anything down is an exercise in patience, but he knows Arkem isn’t enjoying it either by the way his jaw works in slow, tense motions around his own portion.

Silas scoops up another gnocchi and drives his tongue into the cleft in it, flattening it against the roof of his mouth. It splits into two under the pressure and he scrapes the halves off his [palatine bone] with a determined push of his tongue, expression strained until the ball of dough comes off with an obscene sound. All it leaves behind is a sticky residue Silas is sure he’ll carry with him for days.

Arkem, finally caving under his mounting disgust for the spectacle that is Silas eating, says, “Stop, please,” shoving his own bowl onto the coffee table to get rid of it.

For once, Silas is eager to obey: He pops his mouth open and lets the gnocchi he hadn’t gotten to yet fall back out with a plop and Arkem pulls a face that’s exactly like Mummy’s when he’d brought home an array of decapitated grasshoppers at four.

“I’m surprised you made it even that long. These are cooked to fuck,” Silas declares as he sets his bowl aside, all prim and proper again now that  his veritable punishment has been suspended - Mummy’s manners second nature when his sole focus isn’t on misbehaving.

Arkem says, “I could tell as much without your little demonstration ,” and sounds testy doing it. He must hear it too, because he shifts uncomfortably at his end of the sofa, legs uncrossing and re-crossing at the ankles. “I’m not a chef.”

“No,” Silas agrees with a snort because he’s seen the best of Arkem’s cooking and it doesn’t amount to much: dry parmesan chicken, bowls of microwaved frozen vegetables to drive off scurvy, and cup noodles thrown into a bowl and served piping hot.

Luckily Arkem earns enough money now to get regular take out and have packed salads for lunches, because even Silas was beginning to think his diet was sad. Unfortunately, that also means he feels entitled to lecture Silas on his eating habits, although, even Silas has to admit, poor quality never did cut into quantity in Arkem’s case and he’s sure his brother’s 2000 calories never shrunk to 800. Back when Silas had first moved to the city and his apartment didn’t have much in the way of furniture in it, they’d spent a few nights a week at Arkem’s watching films, Arkem stuffing his face with a twelve pack of mini muffins while Silas drank most of their shared bottle of wine.

It all seems a lifetime ago now, not the meagre fourteen months it’s actually been.

They’re both two years older and eight years tireder – the skin under Arkem’s eyes paper thin and permanently purplish while Silas’ ribs edge ever closer to his skin. No longer under Mummy’s watchful eye and creamy cooking, his bones seem determined to finally claw their way out of his body and he knows he ought to worry (Arkem certainly does), but he quite likes seeing the contours of his skeleton. It’s biomechanics in action, individual trajectories becoming combined vectors and smooth motion.

He takes a deep breath in and feels his ribcage expand and carve a space for itself in the world before it collapses again, a crackle deep down echoing all across until he’s clutching his sides in the midst of a coughing fit.

“You are seeing the doctor tomorrow,” Arkem tells him firmly and thoroughly ruins the moment.

If he could, Silas would say something devastating in return, but as things are, he’s busy hacking up something semi-solid and revolting that he’s quick to wipe off the back of his hand.

“God, how do you think people have survived the perils of life thus far?” he asks, voice still too gravely to be convincing. “Not every little cold is a death sentence.”

“If you want to kill yourself nineteenth century style, fine. Means I won’t have to squabble with you over our inheritance in thirty years’ time.”

“Oh please, you couldn’t care less about money.”

“True but imagine all the free time I’ll have without you around to harass me,” Arkem says. “I could become president, probably cure cancer too.” He’s relaxed enough to slump into the sofa with a grin, languid and smug, and Silas hates him for it.

In an ideal world, he’d kick him in the throat for it, never quite having forgotten how satisfying it was the one time he did actually do that — six years old and too driven by concentrated fury to consider the consequences of his actions and until he’d already taken his aim. Recalling the incident now (that sound Arkem made upon impact) keeps him calm enough to keep his voice level and say: “Oh please, you’d get so bored the cleaning lady at your office would find your brains all over the wall before the year is out.”

It’s a perfect quip, or it should be, but Arkem’s defensive maneuvers have evolved alongside Silas’ offences, and he sidesteps by saying, “Don’t bring Berenice into this,” in a deadpan voice, and they’re back to square one.

Under different circumstances, Silas would employ dirtier tricks to tilt the tally in his favour: strip Arkem clean of all his pretence and let their turf war extend to good old-fashioned blows in the trenches because he can take a split lip with grace as much as Arkem can throw a knuckle-splitting punch without wincing, but there will always also be those other nights. Ones like these, when Silas is worn too thin to pick at the seams of the fabric of their relationship and Arkem isn’t stupid enough to provoke him, so they settle into a reluctant impasse on a well-worn couch with two half-finished bowls of soup between them and call it a night.

 

IX.

It’s uncomplicated and instinctive, the way they divide their territories. Arkem stays with the excuse of clearing the dishes and Silas disappears into his bedroom even though he isn’t the least bit tired, listening attentively to the clatter of porcelain and glass two rooms down. In another life, he was fifteen and it was the gurgling of the bathroom pipes he was straining to hear, equally aware of Arkem’s existence but in a wholly different way.

Silas was feverish then too, ill with thoughts of his brother tainted by racy images that only seemed to become more vivid when he shut his eyes, so that he woke up frightened and confused with a rather persistent fledgling erection and a bladder on the verge of bursting from having to wait for his brother to come out of the shower and get dressed.

Four years on, the adolescent mystery of his attraction to Arkem has been dispelled. He’s no longer the incomprehensible adult caricature of the older brother in Silas’ childhood memories, not a stranger who lives hours away and evokes a sense of déjà vu every time he’s closer than that, but someone entirely new. He’s undergone the same metamorphosis Silas has, both of them emerging from their cocoons to rediscover the other has changed, neither for better or worse, just rearranged – like pieces in a kaleidoscope that life insists on tilting every so often. Their past and present are tethered together by a mere stitch in time now, a thin thread that bears the tension of a six-year-separation and threatens to come undone far too often.

But in this new world, Silas knows Arkem as he did when they were kids: inside out and down to the marrow of his bones. He’s aware of the exact moment the taps above the kitchen sink turn off, of how long it takes Arkem to wipe the counter, and the sound of the cupboard he hangs the dish towel over opening and shutting. He also knows the distance from the kitchen to the front door and that Arkem doesn’t cross that far, that he probably stops at the sofa and then never really moves, and, just this once, he finds he doesn’t mind.

X.

The night is a restless ordeal for Silas. The hours stretch before him, mind perpetually more exhausted and yet his body refuses to succumb to sleep. He writhes and sits perfectly still in turns, but nothing helps. Eventually he drains the glass of water Arkem left for him on the night stand, fairly certain he’s running a fever if the shivering’s anything to go by, though he’s not lucid enough to check.

Somewhere around two, his phone lights up with an e-mail notification and he gets fed up enough to try reading, only the words swim on the page and make him dizzy jumping around like that.

This continues for what seems like an eternity to him. Silas grazes the edge of sleep so often, he thinks he must have mapped out the exact borders of human consciousness by now and that is when it happens: he cuts himself on that delicate edge where the mind folds in on itself and the conscious becomes the subconscious. That last little bit of him that hangs on stubbornly goes out like the glowing end of a blown-out candle, briefly there on one last, deep breath and then gone altogether.

When he comes to, the morning is straining on six and the entire left side of his head is throbbing. He cracks an eye open experimentally, tendrils of pain curling around the shell of his ear and extending outwards in every direction from the searing pinpoint origin inside his skull. He turns his head and it shoots down his jaw and into his neck like lightning being grounded. The sensation is raw enough to draw a pained sound from him and – briefly, stupidly – he thinks This is it .

He scrambles out of bed and tries to steady himself on the walls as he ambles out of the bedroom.

“Arkem,” Silas wheezes, standing barefoot in the living room, trail of sweaty footprints slowly evaporating behind him. Arkem is still passed out on the couch, half wrapped up in a ratty old throw blanket and half huddled under his own coat.

“Arkem,” he tries again, shaking his brother out of his sleep, “I need to go to the doctor’s.”

For a moment, Silas isn’t sure if Arkem heard him, his eyes out of focus as he stares up at him, but then he says, “Hmm? Yes. Yes, of course!” and Silas can almost see his mind booting up.

“We still have a standing appointment for eight,” Arkem says, upright now and immediately full motion, worry lines back on his face. Watching Arkem shrug on his suit jacket reminds Silas of Mummy aflutter around him in the kitchen on a school morning, and Silas lets out the long breath that’s lodged itself in his chest, old comfort seeping into his bones to squeeze the ghost of his baby cheeks and whisper, “It’s going to be okay.”

The relief of someone being there is so profound, his throat threatens to close up.

Arkem sits him down at the kitchen table, pushes a cup of tea on him, and asks: “Do you think you can eat something?”

It’s a thought that hadn’t even crossed his mind, but now that Silas thinks about it he is hungry, has been for hours , maybe years.

It’s all they ever argue about, a matter that’s long surpassed questions, suggestions and kindness, Arkem forcing meals on Silas as often as Silas rejects them, yet here he is: asking.

“I don’t know,” Silas says truthfully and Arkem doesn’t push it, merely serves up a bowl of honey yogurt that he wordlessly clears away again after Silas has a coughing fit halfway through it.

 

XI.

The waiting room is nearly empty when they show up at ten to eight. Silas takes the opportunity to collapse unceremoniously in the closest chair while Arkem signs him in. On the other side of the room, a watchful mother hugs her daughter closer, clearly concerned Silas might have some new, more potent form of the [what type] plague.

He coughs into his scarf, damp heat rising inside the wool and clinging to his cheeks. It’s revolting and if he wasn’t so tired, he’d paw the scarf from his face and throw his hat at the wall. Then again, if he weren’t so tired he wouldn’t have let Arkem bundle him up like this in the first place, wouldn’t have let him tug at him until the hat came down over his ears and the scarf came up over his mouth, cocooning him in his own sickness.

Arkem sits down next to him with a form on a clipboard, Silas’ name and social security number printed at the top and fills it in with clear block letter script. Silas’ medical history takes shape on it from before he can even remember, Arkem’s years stretching beyond his. His head start comes with a price though, because the last few years are Silas’ alone and Arkem has to ask: “Do you still take antihistamines?”

“No,” Silas says and redirects his sullen glare from Arkem to the flu shot poster on the wall mocking him cruelly.

A doctor appearing in the waiting room doorway shouts, “Heller,” and the nervous, young mother on the other side of the room gathers her daughter and all their belongings to hurry past Arkem and Silas with a furtive glance.

Silas watches the girl stumble past, nose rubbed raw and misery written plainly in her eyes. She’s dragged along by a larger hand around her own, and he wonders if him and Arkem look the same – whether the six years between them have come to mean any less than they did two decades ago, or if he’s still the baby brother hanging from Arkem’s coat tails, forever destined to lag behind.

But no, they are something else entirely now Silas skeletonized and off-colour and finally Arkem’s height even though he’ll never quite live up to his frame like Arkem does: washed red from the crisp morning air and the lines of his coat filled out like it’s sewn to him.

On a good day, they may be mistaken for brothers. On a day like this, they’re death and his keeper.

Eyes still trained on the medical form, ever the dutiful brother, Arkem asks: “Any other medication?”

“No,” Silas says.

The waiting room door clangs shut behind the mother and then it’s just the two of them. Silas feels the unspeakable need to rest his head on Arkem’s shoulder, tired of himself and tired of the world. (Above all, he wants Mummy’s fingers on his scalp, nails clipping his skin and her voice a humming noise resonating where their torsos touch.) Instead, the back of his skull meets the wall and he closes his eyes against the white of the ceiling, adrift in the timelessness of agony.

 

XII.

“Pneumonia,” Arkem repeats for the umpteenth time and Silas clutches his prescription harder, the paper crinkling into the curve of his palm. “You’re unbelievable.”

“Can we go?” Silas asks, because the doctor had already given him the dressing down of a century and the paracetamol he took two hours ago isn’t doing anything anymore, so he’d really much rather not do this right now.

“You do realise I can’t not tell Mummy now? I mean, bronchitis I could have passed off, but pneumonia? No.”

“Then rat me out,” Silas says, listless with pain. “I don’t care.”

He ought to. It’d save him from a two-hour phone call going in circles, impossible to extricate himself from because it’s Mummy and no excuse will do when she wants to be relentless. Perhaps it’s precisely his resignation in the face of their ultimate threat that finally makes Arkem shut up and start the car.

He’s not usually one to chicken out like that, but neither is Silas – both of them avid swallowers of poison pills since childhood dares. This, however, is not a fair match, and it must leave a bad taste in Arkem’s mouth, because he puts the car into second gear and drives off quietly.



XIII.

It’s all a bit of a blur: the pill popping, someone changing his sweaty socks, the fereved dampness of him entangled in the sheets and shards of light cutting through the slit in the curtains. Everything rattles around his head, rearranges itself in a kaleidoscope tumble before sleep pries the visions from him and swallows them whole. Silas can feel it coming on as he’s drinking orange juice in the kitchen, sees the shoreline withdraw and knows it’s there in the distance. Patiently, he waits for it to crash over him like a deadweight, wash him out to sea, and sink him to the bottom of the ocean that’s slowly gathering in his lungs.

His last word as Arkem tucks the duvet under his chin is, “Don’t,” but his eyes won’t open and his tongue is too lax to protest any more, fingers sinking into the sheets and curling in on themselves in as the world goes black in the dead calm of Arkem’s cool hand on his forehead.

 

XIV.

The first time he wakes is brief: five minutes in and out of consciousness. He’s half propped up on every single pillow he owns, and the antibiotics get stuck in the back of his throat for the short moment before the water comes flooding in. He’s barely drinking, less swallowing and more letting gravity pull mouthful after mouthful straight down his throat. The greedy little rivulets springing out of the corners of his mouth drip onto the sheets and press into his cheek when he goes under again.

Above him, the blanket moves on its own.

 

XV.

His first proper, untamed breath comes to him sixteen hours after he first goes to bed, though Silas isn’t lucid enough to keep track of time like that. He wakes to his chest over-expanding, air seeping into crevices that haven’t seen any for days.

He croaks, “Wha-“ and the rest of the question dies somewhere in the desert of his mouth, lips dry and jagged like a mountain range.

Arkem understands him anyway and says: “It’s past midnight.”

“Friday?”

“Saturday, technically, but yes.”

He’s still in yesterday’s clothes, which Silas supposes are actually ones from the day before by now. His hair is messy enough to match.

“I was just about to wake you,” Arkem says when Silas doesn’t offer up any words himself, and it’s only then that Silas notices the glass of fizzing yellow liquid and the antibiotic capsule he’s holding.

Suspicious, he asks, “What is that?”

“The least revolting vitamin drink I could find,” Arkem says and Silas’ brow furrows.

The smell is nauseatingly artificial right under his nose and Silas shakes his head at the glass before he’s forced to turn away and breathe in through his mouth.

“Silas, you have to have something.”

“I’d rather eat an entire banquet,” he says, pushing the glass away and stretching his arms out to let Arkem help him up, as open a resignation as he can muster.

“You shouldn’t be up yet,” Arkem complains even as he’s hoisting Silas out of bed and for once, Silas is inclined to agree. The lurching sensation in his stomach alone is almost enough to draw him back down to the mattress and that’s without the dull ache in his head that doubles up as soon as he’s upright.

“Yeah, well-“ he starts and then his voice breaks. Deciding he’s overextended himself, his lungs collapse with squelching protest and he coughs into his arm, sputum splattering wet onto his skin. Silas tries to ignore it by wiping the worst of the mess on his shirt and hobbles out of the bedroom.

The momentary ease he felt upon waking doesn’t seem to be the status quo yet, because he feels as wretched now that he’s actually out of bed as he did crawling into it, though he can’t help but wonder how much of that is down to the fact that he’s grimy all over from skipping out on showers for four days and not brushing his teeth for two of those.

Confirming his suspicions of lethal halitosis, Arkem steers him into the bath instead of the kitchen to sit him down on the toilet cover and hand him his toothbrush. The fact that he stays to watch should make the situation even more humiliating, but right now, Silas is glad he can close his eyes and not worry about smashing his head into the edge of the tub by accident.

“Spit, it’s been three minutes,” Arkem says eventually and Silas blinks himself out of his trance, hoists himself just far enough over the sink not to get toothpaste all over himself, and sinks back down with a heavy sigh when Arkem takes the toothbrush away from him again.

“If you can’t manage a piss,” Arkem says, already through the doorway by the time Silas even realises he’s leaving, “you’re drinking two glasses of that vitamin drink even if it’s the last thing I ever get into your body.”

“You’re cruel,” Silas moans after him, but his voice is weak with disuse and the words don’t carry.

He considers his options for a minute, then forces himself up and shoves his pants down.

 

XVI.

There’s a pot of tea steaming away quietly on the kitchen table when Silas finally makes it out of the bath. The scent wafting off of it (he recognizes it as Moroccan mint – the loose-leaf packet from the back of his cupboards, the one Mummy had given him for Christmas last year) is the first thing he’s smelled properly in days and he’s momentarily overwhelmed by rediscovering one of his senses like that, startled by the tingle that turns into a burn when he leans in too close to take a deep breath.

“I put honey in it,” Arkem says and, at Silas’ frown, adds, “per the doctor’s orders.”

“Are you going to make me eat?” Silas asks.

“You have to, I’m afraid. For the antibiotics.”

It’s ugly an inescapable truth that even Silas won’t argue with, because he would much rather eat now than wake up in ten hours from now wheezing again. He can think about where the food has gone and how to get it out of him again later, when his brain is back online and Arkem is no longer there to watch his every move.

“What do I get, more yogurt?”

“I’m making French toast,” Arkem says, explaining the pan on the stove and the covered plate on the counter. “I figured that should be a safe way to get some bread into you aspirating half of it.”

He uncovers the plate and sets it before Silas at the table, then pours two cups of tea while Silas comes to terms with the mound of toast before him.

“Where’s the sugar?” Silas asks after he’s fished the top slice onto a smaller plate for himself.

“What for?”

“If I have to eat these, I at least want them sweet.”

Arkem sighs. “Are you going to be able to manage it without inhaling a spoonful of sugar?” he asks even though he’s already pulling the bowl out of the cupboard.

“That was one time,” Silas snaps, unhappy to still be taunted about the incident.

He was four when it happened, both of them home with the chicken pox, huddled miserably together on the sofa and always ready to tell on the other for scratching themselves because being mean was the only solace either of them had in that hell. Mummy made them French toast then as she did every time they were ill, and Silas, getting to take the oven mittens she’d stuck on his hands off for the first time that day, went so overboard with the sugar, every mouthful crunched. It hadn’t ended well of course – mostly teary eyed and sore throated, wheezing on the kitchen floor – with Arkem smacking him hard on the back half a dozen times before his father turned him upside down and gave him a good shake.

“It’s a valid concern. With practically waterlogged lungs, you wouldn’t recover from it this time,” Arkem says, sprinkling the sugar for him like salt.

It isn’t nearly enough, not the sheen of white Silas would’ve piled on himself. He’s used to his vices in excess: sugar, caffeine, and the occasional binge smoke. He doesn’t do anything by halves and the underlying saltiness of the egg almost makes him retch. He manages to keep it in, though – an act that requires immense force of will, because Arkem is sitting opposite him all prim and proper, tucking into his own food, and he looks pleased enough that Silas would gladly vomit on the table just to ruin his mood.

“How are you still here?” Silas asks when Arkem moves onto his third piece of toast and pushes a second one onto Silas’ plate.

“I already told you: I’m here because you’re my brother and you are ill.”

“I didn’t ask why , I asked how . Aren’t you one of those irreplaceable, soulless lackeys without whom the city falls apart?”

“I’m neither a lackey nor a god, Silas.”

“Bit rich of you to assume I was suggesting you’re a god .”

“Well, what were you suggesting?”

“That by now there’s surely a scandal being unearthed because you’re not there to get your hands dirty digging a grave for it.”

“Perhaps you’re confused as to which side of the law I’m on.”

“I think not. Besides, history is notoriously on my side here.”

“You’ve watched too many dramatized documentaries,” Arkem says, a note of amused pity in his voice, “I’m not some sinister, corrupt television politician.”

Silas counters: “I would be hard pressed to call you a politician at all. From what I’ve seen of your job, you’re not much more than an assistant with a pretty title.”

“We all have to start somewhere. Might I suggest you start with your attitude?” Arkem quips and Silas narrows his eyes at him dangerously before he pounces.

“Piss off,” he says and leaves his toast to go sulk.

 

XVII.

Silas hides, as he always has, in the inviolable sanctuary of his bedroom. It’s musty from the exorbitant number of hours he’s been asleep these few days, so he cracks the window open before he collapses back into bed.

Exhausted again, but not actually tired enough to sleep, he lies there face down inhaling the grimy scent of sheets drenched and dried with sweat time and time again, as questionable as early twentieth century field medicine. He’s lost days to a war with this mattress and taken nothing from it. All that time is Arkem’s to keep, yet another morsel of Silas’ lifetime he’s stolen. The inevitability of being the little brother , Silas thinks bitterly.

Behind the headboard, the pipes start rumbling as the taps on the tub are turned up and Silas sighs, knowing what’s to come. He supposes putting up a fight won’t make much of a difference (it never did with Mummy either), but he’s been raised to misbehave, so he drags himself far enough up the bed to bang on the wall. His palm barely makes a sound against the supporting wall, but even that little act of rebellion manages to be satisfying.

It’s the principle , he tells himself – like the bimonthly cigarettes he used to smoke behind the garden shed in the dark, his spares hidden away in a gutted pack of cards wedged under his mattress, the stash originally raided off his brother one Christmas. He’s not fifteen anymore, but the anger that lives and breathes within him seems to be.

They continuously drag it out of each other: their archetypes. Perhaps it’s because they’re only an extension of their all too familiar childhood dynamics – Arkem the unquestioned authority figure in Mummy’s absence and Silas the chaser, always greedy for something else, something more, something of his own that Arkem wants but can’t have. Silas has yet to surrender, snapping and snarling like a wild beast, but Arkem still holds has him on a ten-foot leash.

“Silas,” Arkem says from the three-inch crack in the door. “I’ve let you a bath.”

“Yes, I’m not deaf,” Silas replies, though it’s with less venom than usual because the thought of getting to wash his hair for the first time in a week has an undeniable appeal.

“Well, get in before it cools then, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“You’re leaving?” he asks and immediately regrets letting it come out with such disbelief, as though it isn’t what he’s wanted all along.

“As soon as you’re done, yes. I do have a job to keep up with and you seem to be getting better by all accounts. So, once I’m satisfied you aren’t going to drown in the tub, we can both get on with it.” He’s still stood in the corridor, their boundaries back in place now that Silas isn’t completely delirious anymore.

“Okay,” Silas says, propping himself up on his elbows as Arkem shuts the door on him.

By the time he’s stripped down to his boxers and found a clean towel, Arkem’s washed the dishes, the scent of artificial citrus permeating the whole flat. Silas sneaks into the bath on bare feet, slips through the door quietly, and gets a big lungful of eucalyptus tinged steam.

There’s a tiny bottle on the toilet cover that reads ‘aroma therapy’, the last two letters obscured by a hand-written price tag. Silas turns it over in his hands and wonders not only when and where his brother could have acquired this, but why he would bother at all.

 

XVIII.

Silas lowers himself into it slowly, the temperature probably creeping towards 39 degrees, though it feels like fifty on his skin. It melts all his muscles the moment the initial heat shock wears off and he sighs as he sinks to his knees.

His chest, though, doesn’t take the water quite as well the rest of his body; while the steam is welcome, the sudden spike of temperature around his ribcage sends him into another ugly coughing fit that echoes brokenly off the tiles. He dredges up something semi-solid from the depths of his lungs that he has no desire to look at, so he spits it into a damp wad of toilet paper pawed straight off the roll.

He ends up with three balls like that, each of which he tosses into the sink to deal with later, gradually hacking up more and more pieces. It’s oddly satisfying even though it’s also immensely painful. Whatever has invaded him is being chased out the hard way but chased out nevertheless.

Eventually he manages to settle down and sink into the water until his chin grazes the surface, knees poking out at the other end of the tub as he folds in on himself and lets out a long sigh. It’s the first time in close to two weeks that he’s not miserable and he has to admit that he largely has Arkem to thank for that.

As much of a menace as his brother can be, the food, rest, and medication he’s forced onto Silas have worked wonders. They’ve probably kept him out of hospital, if he’s honest, and thus spared him from the absolute shit storm that would’ve befallen him if Mummy had to come to town because he’d gone and nearly killed himself over a chest infection.

And Silas is grateful for it, even if he can’t say as much. He has other ways of expressing his gratitude just as Arkem has found quiet ways to convey his concern: Silas drinks the glass of chilled Sprite that’s been left on the edge of the tub for him and gets to washing his hair, certain that the sheets on his bed will have been changed by the time he gets out of his bath and the leftovers stored away in the fridge, Arkem halfway to the front door before he’s even dressed, both of them feeling a little more at ease beneath their customary hostility.

 

XIX.

Arkem is indeed gone at the sound of the water gurgling in the sewers. Silas finds the flat dimmed, only the kitchen light and his bedside lamp on, and it’s the first time he takes notice of the hour. Outside, the city sleeps in urban darkness, all the squares on the block opposite his gone black while the street lights glimmer golden two stories below, illuminating the canyon of a street that stitches the lives of countless people together by its mere existence.

With Arkem around, Silas had barely noticed it was the middle of the night, but left to his own devices – barefoot in the kitchen with a towel slung around his waist and damp hair flopping down into his eyes – he shivers, all too aware that it’s coming up on two am.

It’s a time he’s often stayed up past since starting uni, always more alert at night when there were fewer distractions around, but now, it weighs on him and he crawls into back under the covers as soon as he’s located a pair of warm pyjamas. He’s not quite gone enough to fall asleep yet, though he doesn’t bother reaching for his laptop either, only flips his pillow when the side he’s lying on grows too damp to handle.

It’s lonely the way his bedroom used to be on school nights before he actually went to school, Silas lying awake in the dark while Arkem slept oblivious next door and their parents lived out their private lives downstairs. He’s not five anymore though, and Arkem, while likely halfway across the city by now, is only a phone call away.

Still, it won’t do to call so soon after he’s finally managed to drive him away. Can’t let the bastard think he’s needed, so Silas waits for being awake to exhaust him and then falls into a restless, shallow sleep where he dreams of a tall figure in the pavilion calling his name.

XX.

It’s hours later that he wakes, not to the sun, but the ringing of his phone plugged into the socket by his dresser. He isn’t sure how it’s ended up over there instead of his nightstand (even though he’s sure the answer is Arkem) and nearly trips on the part of the blanket that tumbles out of bed with him as he goes to get it.

“Hello?” he croaks without looking at the caller ID and discovers his voice has gone bad again.

On the other end of the line, Arkem says, “Take your medicine,” in the curt, dispassionate way that suggests he’s busy as much as the fact that he hangs up without another word.

It takes Silas a few seconds to pull his mind out of the back of his skull and let his eyes adjust to the bright strips of morning light pouring in through the window. The digital clock on his bedside table informs him it’s eight am – a gruesome hour for him, but late for Arkem, at least if he’s going into work today, though Silas supposes there are exceptions to be made for a Sunday.

In his case, that constitutes attempting to eat something resembling breakfast before he puzzles out the medicine packet left on the counter for him. The capsules are two toned and he swallows them with a strong cup of tea curled up on the couch watching morning cartoons on the little 32-inch telly he inherited from his brother when he moved to town last year. Silas spends most of his day lying there, though he changes into sweats and a t-shirt when he goes to grab his laptop and puts on recordings of the lectures he’s missed.

He doesn’t actually absorb a single word of what he watches, but it’s as good a way to kill time as any. By three, he reckons he’s allowed another antibiotic and a fresh pot of tea, which takes him an hour and half and a whole movie to drink. It’s gone tepid by the time he’s on his last cup and he’s tiring fast from having done nothing all day, so he takes himself back to bed and promptly falls asleep.

When he comes to again, it’s under an Aegean blue sky lined with coppery orange, the day dying fast around him and the blankets pulled smooth over the planes of his body. Beside him, the warmth and weight of another body distort the shape of his mattress, an unnatural shift in landscape that Silas instinctively turns towards, the soul of a four-year-old within him still expecting to see Mummy. What he gets instead is Arkem with a sheaf of papers propped up on his left leg, peeling a tangerine in his lap.

His eyes slide over to Silas as he stirs and Arkem’s hands quiet. “Hello,” he says, and his voice sounds like a smile even though his face doesn’t convey one.

“Hi,” Silas grumbles, letting his eyes drift shut momentarily, his body still clinging to sleep. “When did you get here?”

“I decided to drop by after work.”

“It’s Sunday.”

“Yes, but you have made me miss two days this week and politics waits for no man's brother.”

“I didn’t ask you to come,” Silas says and it’s neither ‘I didn’t want you to come’ nor ‘thank you’, both of which are thoughts that hover in his mind, treacherously thick with emotion.

Having learned to read between the lines and make excuses for the both of them, Arkem says: “I wanted to make sure you were taking your medication.”

“It’s not time for another yet, is it?” Silas asks, because he’s just buried his nose in the side of Arkem’s thigh and getting up to eat would thoroughly ruin the moment.

Blessedly, Arkem says, “No,” and returns to picking white strings off his tangerine. He offers a slice to Silas by pushing it close enough to his face that he can smell it, and Silas’ head turns toward it without a thought, because this is what Mummy used to do for them on cold winter days: peel citrus fruits after school when the sun had set too early and the kitchen took on a magical candlelit quality.

She fed them slices in turns as Arkem does now, Silas’ pieces stripped clean to the flesh and Arkem’s as they come off the peel. It’s a familiar rhythm that puts Silas at ease, makes him seven again and satiated.

They eat in silence, and when they’re done, Arkem moves the peel onto the nightstand. He turns the page on whatever proposal he’s reading as Silas turns his head back into the meat of Arkem’s leg. He’s almost cosy enough to fall asleep again, his breathing shallow and warm in the small space between their bodies until Arkem absentmindedly sinks a hand into his hair and draws him back into the moment by sliding his fingers all the way to the back of Silas’ skull.

He pulls the mop of hair falling onto Silas’ face with him, then reverses the motion, carding fingertips along scalp. The drag of slightly overgrown nails makes Silas shudder and inhale a deep lungful of a cotton and wool blend – a scent that reminds him of rainy weekends at home, folded over his parents’ laps in the living room, Mummy tracing patterns onto his back while his father’s steady hand on the back of his neck anchored him in the tumultuous restlessness that has always governed his life.

It’s a rare moment for him and Arkem to have. Most of their encounters these days are either ugly scraps over minor annoyances or heated forays into the other’s personal space – always more teeth and nails than tenderness. Even when Silas stays the night, he wakes petulant, at war with the world the moment the sun is up. Their calm lies in the dark hours between one day and the next, Arkem’s hand sliding off his hip as he rolls over and Silas tucking himself into one of the many junctions of his brother’s body.

With the lights on, they only ever sit on opposite sides of a table or folded onto different pieces of furniture, companionable workaholics chipping away at the vices of their choosing.

It isn’t exploring the trade relationships across the Pacific or memorizing overly specific cladograms anymore, their childhood curiosity exchanged for a different kind of drive that makes them both too tired and irritable to be kind to one another. It’s a shame, really, Silas thinks, because they used to be brothers and each other’s best friends – the Venn diagram of their lives two closely associated circles, more one structure than two. And in moments like these, that intimacy is almost restored, their lives effortlessly intertwined when they’re not busy one-upping each other.

It can’t last and Silas knows as much, so he closes his eyes and buries the forming memory of this singular moment somewhere deep in his mind to be unearthed on another day and keep him warm when there are miles and months of ice between them.

 

XXI.

Arkem pushes him unkindly out of bed some time past ten and forces a bowl of cereal and a repulsive, green smoothie on him. Silas eats obediently, if resentfully, doing the labyrinth on the back of the newly opened cocoa puffs out of habit while Arkem treats himself to a cup of pudding out of the fridge and one of the apples he’s left sitting on the counter because Silas is not the type to own a fruit bowl.

Arkem is done long before him, so he retreats to the couch with his laptop, political documents gleaming blue in his eyes from where Silas is sitting. It reminds him of those first few nights he ever spent alone in town with Arkem, living quietly in his brother’s student flat for a weekend instead of sleeping on the couch at Daddy’s embassy apartment, their childhood ease and intimacy restored in a more refined adult version in that space. They’ve coexisted peacefully for many evenings since, Silas doing homework on the coffee table while Arkem ironed all his dress shirts for the coming week. It doesn’t stop them from blowing up at each other every other week and having frequent spats that result in week-long silences, but on some fundamental level, they get along.

Silas makes the executive decision to take the remainder of his smoothie to the couch and tuck his toes under Arkem’s thigh as he studies him in profile, childishly enamoured for a moment, because this is how it used to be years ago: Arkem deep in thought over a book about colonialism, already halfway to adulthood while Silas was still learning his letters in cursive, keen for a distraction from the dullness of his lagging life.

“What are you looking at?” Arkem asks without shifting his attention away from the screen. He’s perfected splitting himself for Silas like this – always aware of him out of the corner of his eye without ever letting him be a distraction.

Silas hates it as much as he’s taken by the fact that he permanently preoccupies some part of Arkem as much as Arkem preoccupies him.

“I still don’t understand your fascination with¬” he leans forward to glimpse a few words off the screen¬ “ land development . You used to be at least marginally interesting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry I don’t entertain you sufficiently anymore,” Arkem mutters, tapping repeatedly on the backspace key.

“You never have,” Silas retorts, quick as a blitz and is rewarded with a reluctant half smile. “Seriously, wasn’t the whole point of chasing a promotion that you wouldn’t have to work as much afterwards?”

“Yes, but that was two years ago. I have places to go.”

“You’re twenty-five. There’s a lifetime for you to achieve world domination or whatever it is you’re going for h-”

“A car,” Arkem says. “It’s a car I’m after and I need it sooner rather than later.”

Sniffing a bombshell from a mile off, Silas slides his heels back until he can fold himself forward and hug his knees. “You live three blocks from your job in the heart of town. Why would you need a car?”

“Because I got approved for a mortgage,” Arkem says and looks up.

“Wh- How? When ?”

“I’ve been saving up for the deposit for a while and finally, last week, the application went through. It’s a good sum of money, but the only way I can buy a house I won’t have to move out of in five years’ time is if it’s outside the city, so I’m going to have to get a car too… which I can’t afford without a pay rise.”

It’s all sensible and sober in a way that feels very distant to Silas and he finds himself asking, “Have you found a place yet?” in a voice that is not his own, derived from somewhere within the hollow in his stomach.

“No. I haven’t even started looking with things still so up in the air. And then you got ill…”

“And Mummy?” Silas asks, “What did she say?”

“She doesn’t know.”

“What?”

“Well, I haven’t spoken to her in weeks. I never got the chance when I first heard and then I was busy taking care of you and juggling work, so the opportunity never presented itself.”

“Wait, you haven’t called her since last week?”

“No.”

“But what about… me?” Silas asks.

“Well, that’s another thing she doesn’t know about,” Arkem says calmly, as if that doesn’t constitute a breach of the fundamentals of their relationship. “I didn’t tell.”

“Why not?”

Arkem shrugs. “I figured there would always be time to drop you in it.”

“And here I thought she was just postponing the bollocking until she could tear me to shreds without worrying I might die in the process.”

He’s been too immersed in the tides of sickness and sleep sweeping over him to notice she hasn’t called or puzzle out Arkem, but now that he’s back, Silas can see it clear as day: Arkem shaking his head, sleeplessness imprinted in the dark smudges beneath his eyes from staying up to keep Silas.

“Thank you,” Silas says. They’re rare and weighted words that tip him over the balls of his feet and onto his knees. He wraps his arms around Arkem (one sloping off his shoulder as the other curls around the back of his neck) and squeezes without thinking like he used to when they were kids.

Even rarer, perhaps, is the fact that Arkem squeezes back.

“Does this mean I can stay the night?” he asks quietly on account of having his face pressed into Silas’ neck.

“Just this once,” Silas says, simultaneously offering a concession and issuing a warning. They can, after all, only abide each other in moderation.

 

XXII.

Arkem is warm and pliant in his sleep, a dead weight on the mattress next to Silas, who lies awake scrolling listlessly through his phone. He sleeps curled on his side for a while, but ultimately ends up plastered against Silas’ back, nose buried into the strip of skin below Silas’ hairline where his breath comes slow and damp like a country storm.

It’s just how they used to be when Silas was little: When he’d had a nightmare and he would crawl into Arkem’s bed to wrap himself in the safety of his brother’s embrace. It’s all those nights when they stayed over at Oma and Opa’s, squished together on a clammy leather sofa in the August heat, miserable for half the night and passed out for the other.

They’ve shared so many nights in close quarters that they sleep effortlessly anywhere, gradually drifting together and apart again and again like waves on a shore. It’s a peaceful and timeless motion, and Silas has no idea how long it goes on for, only that he is alone when the sun comes up. On the nightstand, there are two pills, a tall glass of water, and a note waiting for him.

Had to get ready for work; will be back later. Remember antibiotics! -A

“Of bloody course,” Silas murmurs at the ceiling before he swings his legs over the side of the bed.

He swallows his pills in one go, takes an overdue piss, and types out two snide texts as he waits for the kettle to boil, both of which he promptly deletes, looking up another number.

“Hello?” the other voice says, and Silas breathes a relieved, “Mummy.”

“Silas, darling, is that you?” In the background something clatters before she says, “It’s not like you to call so early or on a Monday morning. Is everything alright?”

“Yes,” he says, “just been a bit run down. Nothing to worry about.”