A plane flew through this night in September 1981, carrying aboard it so many intersecting lives and bodies all within the same liminal space, at least for now. Few paid much attention to the others, except for two inquisitive passengers exploring the business class section, Emily introducing herself to anyone who seemed inclined to speak to her and Spencer shyly trying to avoid eye-contact with the air hostess who kept ruffling his hair and calling him “precious.”
Emily’s extraversion had, by the time the novelty of flying through the air began to wear down, earned her several pieces of candy from friendly passengers, one paperback book, several compliments about the doll she had under her arm, and a small drawing of a flower one man had been doodling on his napkins. Spencer’s introversion had earned him an extra-large serving of ice cream for lunch, the hostess taking pity on the shy, stammering boy in row D. Elizabeth kept one eye on the children, gratified to find that, thus far, having two children really wasn’t that much extra work than having one, working busily in the space allotted to her. When she looked up again, almost an hour later, it was to find both children crammed onto the singular plane seat, both noses pressed to the window as they silently watched the ocean below.
“What’s London like?” she heard Spencer asking Emily, his voice thin and worried. Behind them, on the seat that was supposed to be Spencer’s, there was a jumble of books with three toys perched atop the blankets they’d been given: two dolls propped together with the white hare toy between them.
“I don’t really remember,” was Emily’s response. “I haven’t been there in ages, not since I was six.”
“You went last year, didn’t you?”
“No, I went to France, that’s not London. Grandpa lives there, in a cabin with dogs. You’d like them, I think. Maybe you’ll get to come this year? You can take a ferry, it’s brilliant. No one stops you from throwing things off the boat, and there are cars on it too and once there was a horse that tried to bite me.”
Spencer was quiet, Elizabeth’s pen tapping on her paper as she tried to refocus on the diplomatic mission she was detailing, her brain for some reason more interested in what the two soft voices beside her were now discussing, some part of her still back in the States watching a plane take her son away.
Not noticing her friend’s silence, Emily kept chattering cheerfully: “And we can go exploring around London too, I bet Mom will pay someone to take us to see things if I ask really nice. I don’t bother usually because a lot of it is buildings and old statues and boring things, but you like boring things so that could be cool. Besides, we live there now, so there’s all the time in the world to find cool things to do, right?”
Spencer didn’t answer, just slipped down into his seat and picked up the hare toy, holding it in his lap and staring at it. Elizabeth found herself watching him, the feeling she had like she’d left something dear behind cementing itself in the expression on his face.
“Emily, sit down,” she ordered, wincing as Emily flopped back into the same seat as Spencer, wedging them both in uncomfortably. “In your own seat, please. And be quiet—people are trying to work and don’t need your endless chattering.”
“Fine, but I’m not going to sleep,” Emily declared, crawling into Spencer’s seat and sending books and blankets slithering everywhere. “I refuse. I’m far too excited to sleep.”
Despite this declaration, when Elizabeth next looked over there, the hostess was reaching over two curled up little shapes, pulling the shade down over the window to cut off the light on their closed eyes. One blanket between the two of them and their dolls seated amongst them, Elizabeth looked at them and wondered, for the thousandth time, if she was doing right by them.
“They’re wonderful,” said the hostess, stepping back from the children and smiling at Elizabeth, who glanced at her, confused. “Your children. I’ve never seen two siblings so happy to be together for an entire flight—normally the bickering begins before we’ve even turned the seatbelt light off.”
Elizabeth nodded, forcing a smile and not correcting the woman. “They’re very well behaved,” she commented, returning to her work and hoping that—mostly with Emily—continued.
The children slept through, until the touch of the wheels on the tarmac in England announced the beginning of the next part of their lives.
Everything was different now.
Right from the beginning—the drive from the airport through London—everything was strange. Spencer stared out the tinted windows of the chaffered car they’d been picked up in by a man in a uniform that was nicer than any their occasional driver at home had worn. He saw grey buildings and red busses and squat cars in a myriad of pastels; the people were almost as varied as at home in Vegas too, except in all the ways they were different. The clothes were strange to his eyes, the skies overhead cloudy and just as grey as the buildings. Emily giggled and pointed out a man in a strange, multi-coloured jacket and leather pants, declaring that one day she’d own pants just like it—Elizabeth shuddering at the thought. And the roundabouts. Emily thought they were exciting, demanding to go around over and over again when she realised just how big they could be—Elizabeth ignored her, paperwork on her knee and no time for them.
“Look at that bus,” Emily chattered, pointing to the bus before her attention was snapped away by a group of teenagers with hair like the birds Spencer had seen on TV once, spiked and coloured with more earrings in their faces than their ears. Spencer blinked, started. Emily made a noise of awe, her eyes going big. “Look at their hair.”
“Disgraceful,” Elizabeth said after a glance at the youths.
“Kickass,” Emily whispered into the glass, softly so her mom couldn’t hear her swear. Spencer just folded his hands on his lap, too unsure of his surroundings to touch anything, and felt sick. And he kept feeling sick and out of sorts, until Emily yelled, “A dragon!” and launched him up against the window with her, hare toy still in hand. In the centre of the road they were circling on yet another curved road was a statue—a horse and a man and a dragon below them. Spencer stared, daunted. “Are they killing it?”
“I think so,” he responded, fighting her a little for a better view of the statue before they drove out of sight of it.
“Saint George and the dragon,” Elizabeth answered absently. “We’re almost home.” Even she seemed tense now, her eyes on the dragon as they passed.
“Why is there a dragon statue?” Emily asked. “Did George actually kill a dragon?”
“Do you even pay attention in theology, Emily? Honestly, I don’t know why I bother with you sometimes.” As Elizabeth scolded Emily about not knowing the answer to her own question, Spencer suddenly not as interested in the dragon statue anymore as he considered that London was also a place where you could get in trouble for not knowing something, instead of just being told the answer…
And that wasn’t like home at all.
And then they were out of the grey of London proper and driving along quiet roadways lined by mansions. Thoroughly reprimanded, her excitement pushed down by her mother’s irritation, Emily pressed close to Spencer and whispered, “Whoa…” at the sight of the homes they were driving past.
“Have you ever lived in houses like those?” Spencer asked, trying to count the windows as they passed and failing completely. They made the big house at home look tiny in comparison.
“No,” Emily admitted. “I’ve been in them though. They echo.”
Neither spoke after that, because the car was pulling into a long, tree-lined drive lined with trees and hedges, past a wrought-iron fence, past a great sign naming the place ‘Winfield House’, and out into endless lawn leading to a building just as startlingly grand.
“Mom, whoa,” Emily said, her voice stunned. “Do we live here now? Who are they?”
“Welcome to the most expensive ambassadorial home in the world,” Elizabeth said quietly, finally looking at them. “Understand this, both of you. We are the temporary caretakers of this home and it is an honour and a great responsibility to be so. I won’t have any of the games you played at home here—no damaging the gardens, no running through the home or making a mess. Unlike Seattle, this building comes with a full compliment of staff and is a working building—there are private wings which are ours alone, but the majority of the house belongs to the appointment. At every moment we are here, we represent the unity of our country and the one which we are in—understand?”
Spencer didn’t. Emily, however, did. She wilted.
“Yes, Mom,” she said. She understood perfectly: for the next three years, they would exist—not live—in this mansion, surrounded by people there to do a job. And here were those people now; as they drew up outside the vaunted front doors, there was a small assembly in two straight lines to meet them.
Dazed, the children climbed from the car to be introduced to the people before them. Steward, housekeeper, head gardener—for a wild moment, Emily imagined that that meant he was quite literally the head of their garden, come to life, but he didn’t look very woody—head of security, and the people behind them, who didn’t get introduced so Emily guessed, quite correctly, that only the heads of this place got to have names. That was a familiar feeling, knowing what it was like to be lined up just to look pretty and not have a name. In sympathy, she poked her tongue out at a younger lady in a very pretty apron, who looked startled for just a second.
“We’ll have someone bring your belongings inside,” one of the men was saying. Neither Emily nor Spencer could remember what he was head of. “Security needs to be our first discussion, Madam Ambassador, in times like these—”
Elizabeth had glanced down at the children, standing there awkwardly looking up at her. Neither knew what to do.
“We’ll take the children to their rooms,” another woman said, another head of something or other. Emily thought that this place had too many heads for comfort, like a monster who grew two every time you chopped off one. Spencer just wanted to go home. “Come along, both of you. Leave your bags—Wilds will get them.”
They were led inside, into an opening hall as grand as the outside had been, and with the sinking realisation that this was it. The chandelier overhead, the marble inlays in the walls, the sea of unfamiliar faces…
This was ‘home’.
There was a girl in Spencer’s room. He hovered in the doorway after an abortive attempt to find Emily, clinging to the frame and peering in at this stranger. He might have stayed there forever, cold and miserable and wanting his books, if she hadn’t opened his suitcase and began to touch his stuff.
“Oh!” he gasped, launching in and skidding to a stop when she jumped. “I mean, please… don’t. Please don’t? I don’t… that’s my stuff.”
The girl—maybe just a bit older than Ethan? She looked it anyway—curtsied, looking annoyed for a moment with him. “I know,” she said, looking oddly at him. “It’s my job, Master Reid.”
“Master Reid?” he squeaked, seeing her tense a little like she wasn’t really sure how to act around him.
“Oh, my apologies. Mr Chambers hasn’t told us how Madam Ambassador would like us to address you yet.” As though this explained things, she smiled at him. He stared back, sure that he was drowning under all these new things. “Do you have a preference?”
“For my name?” he squeaked. “Uh. Just Spencer?”
There it was again—her mouth definitely twitched. “How about Master Spencer?” she tried, clearly trying to hint at something. He didn’t know what. He wasn’t a master of anything, not the last time he’d checked.
“Just Spencer,” he said again, more firmly.
The door bounced as Emily skidded in. “It took forever to find you,” she announced. “This place is huge. Do we get to pick our names?”
“Oh, no I was just—” the girl stammered out, her hands still resting on Spencer’s suitcase.
“I want to be called Admiral Emily,” said Emily.
Spencer stared at her.
“I don’t…” The girl was definitely struggling not to laugh now. “I think maybe your mother…”
“No?” Emily looked disappointed. “Well, I guess there are rules about that. Can I be Doctor Emily? No? Hmm. How about Raptor Emily?” She glanced at Spencer, now grinning hugely, knowing exactly what she was doing; Emily, ever since he’d known her, had delighted in torturing the staff. “I doubt there are rules against letting me be Raptor Emily. And then he can be Just Spencer, and we can unpack our own bags, thanks. You’re welcome, bye.”
There was a blink of a moment where the girl hovered just a little bit longer, thrown by the sudden dismissal, but Emily flapped her hand at the door and then shut it firmly behind her. Rudely, Spencer thought, frowning at her.
“Yeah that was rude, I’ll apologise later when Mom screams at me for it,” Emily said fast, launching over to his window and leaning out. “Have you seen? We’ve got guards. And eagle statues! And our bathrooms—one each, mind—they’re made of rock. It’s so cold, but brilliant for sliding in, that’s going to be a blast—and want to know what’s even better?”
“What?” asked Spencer. Over to his suitcase he’d slunk, feeling like he wanted to sleep but not in this huge room with nothing of his and the furniture so heavy and oaken he thought he might be crushed by it.
“Mom’s bedroom is so far away. Actually, everything is really far away here. We’re going to need to ride our bikes just to get to breakfast.”
Spencer smoothed out a shirt the girl had touched, hands moving feverishly until he was sure it was exactly how his mom had packed it for him. “Our bikes are home,” he said quietly, Emily falling silent as she realised what he’d said. “By the time we get them back, we’ll be too big for them…”
“We’ll just have to get new bikes.”
“They won’t be the same and you know it…”
Emily had been fighting the beginning touches of worry that were building, noting everything that wasn’t quite as good as she’d hoped it would be about their new home. The staff were stiffer than any staff she’d ever had before, the house was bigger and emptier, her mom looked like she’d be even busier and more important than she’d ever been… and Spencer looked miserable.
She didn’t want him to be miserable. “Want to play chess?” she was about to ask, but there was a knock at the door, a man letting himself in and nodding his head at them. They were summoned to Elizabeth’s new suite of offices, where they spent the next three hours being lectured by Elizabeth and two other scary men in suits and with guns on security and everything they were No Longer Allowed to Do.
London, Spencer and Emily both realised, wasn’t going to be anything at all like home.
Dinner was silent and strange, the food just ever so slightly off to Spencer’s tastes. He ate three bites and wanted to be sick, putting his fork down and shaking his head when Elizabeth asked him if he was feeling okay. No. No, he wasn’t, and he wouldn’t, and this was a mistake. He hadn’t even been here a day and he hated it, he hated being Master Spencer, as Elizabeth had informed him the staff would call him, and he hated that Emily was Miss Emily and he hated this mansion and the clouds outside and the stars he didn’t know and the birds he didn’t know either and—
A tear tapped his plate, dripping into the food he didn’t like either.
He wondered if his mom missed him as much as he missed her. If he’d been home and this miserable, he could go to her, he could climb into bed with her, warm and loved and safe and happy and… loved.
He didn’t feel loved, not even a little. Even Emily was a bit a stranger here, with the way she knew things he didn’t and didn’t seem upset at all that things weren’t quite the same.
“May I go to bed please?” he managed, wincing at Elizabeth’s curt, “Yes. Goodnight.”
Elizabeth hadn’t meant for it to sound as sharp as it had, her heart sinking as he slipped from the table and vanished out the door at speed, leaving Emily sitting there alone with her own fork lowered. It had caught her by surprise, his sudden tears. He’d seemed fine until that moment—hadn’t he?
Jet-lag, she supposed. A good night’s sleep and he’d be fine.
“May I—” Emily began, but Elizabeth frowned at her.
“You’re to leave him alone tonight,” she told her daughter firmly. “He needs to rest—today has been a big day for him. When you leave this table, go straight to bed. If I hear one whisper of you sneaking around, you’ll be sorry for it.”
Emily slouched. Nothing was ever going to change, especially not her mom.
But she hoped that Spencer was okay…
The bed was cold and empty and impossibly huge. Spencer felt lost in it, like he could crawl around in endless circles and never find an edge. It was ridiculously big, considering how small he was. If he laid flat across it, he couldn’t reach from one side to the other. And there were too many pillows, the lacey edging on the duvet making his nose itch when he tried to snuggle under it, and even the bed wore a skirt. Why it wore a skirt, he had no idea, but he was sure Emily would pull a face at it when he showed her in the morning.
There was a soft knock at his door, the maid from that afternoon poking her head in, eyes scanning the room. But he’d packed all his clothes away neatly—or, most of them. His suitcase he’d hidden in his closet, refusing to unpack what his mother had packed for him. There was nothing in here she needed to tidy or touch or just… mess with, and he shrunk under the cover and watched her warily.
“Is there anything you need before bed, Master Spencer?” she asked. He winced again, then shook his head, his words lost somewhere over the Atlantic or maybe back home with his mom and everything he loved. “Very well. If you need anything, there’s a button on your landline, just there. Press that and someone will be along.”
Spencer was looking at what she’d pointed out—he had a phone in his room, what was he supposed to do with that? —so he didn’t see what was about to happen before it happened, and once it had happened it was too late to stop it.
She turned the light off, the sound of the door closing behind her covering his gasp.
It was pitch black. Not even a sliver of light crept in through the heavy curtains he wasn’t strong enough to pull back properly, no narrow beam coming in from under the doorway either. The thick walls muffled all sound, like he was drowning in the silence—at home, his window would have been open to hear the lake, or his door to hear his mom reading or talking or just living. Here…
The door was closed, the window too, and the dark was complete.
He dived under the itchy blankets, burrowing down until he couldn’t breathe and curling tight around Balthy, wishing she was warm and alive under his hands instead of soft and false. Wishing she was a flashlight, his mom, Ethan, anything. There, in a stifled cave of blankets he could barely breathe in, he finally let himself cry because he was sorry he’d ever agreed to this.
And he knew no one would be there to comfort him, and had never felt this alone.
But he wasn’t alone.
Since when had Emily ever taken no for an answer?
He was awake to hear his door creak open and then shut, paralysed with fear for a moment under his blankets as he heard soft footsteps padding quickly towards him. There was a pause of quiet and then the bed bounced violently, a weight thudding down from where it had been thrown recklessly upon it. The covers dipped and rustled under a slight weight crawling onto them and then across, something patting around the opening to his blanket cave until it pulled back the opening and a small light flickered in. It illuminated Emily, looking in at him with her face pale in the light.
“My room is too big,” she said to him, looking uncertain. “It’s so…”
“Quiet,” Spencer whispered, feeling the terrible room swallow his voice too. “Everything is so quiet here…”
They looked at each other, the cold air stealing in through the gaps and replacing the humid heat of his cave.
“There’s enough bed for at least seven Raptor Emilys,” Spencer said finally, hopefully.
Emily smiled, sliding in beside him and burrowing in tight, bringing one of the too many pillows with her. “And at least three Just Spencers,” she added, looping one arm around him and the other around the pillow. “Goodnight, Spence.”
He hugged her back, the hurt receding just a little. He was loved, even if just by this one girl and her terrible, cold feet digging under his.
He could do this. One day at a time, he could do this. And, this time, when he closed his eyes, it wasn’t to silence; it was to her steady breathing beside him.