You are one-two-three-four years old and everything is a blur but you think you were happy. Maybe it’s just because you were too young to remember.
You are five years old and your sister is quiet and sweet, but your house is loud because your parents are always shouting. It isn’t at you; it scares you anyway.
You are six years old, and your father doesn’t smile at you. You tell yourself it’s all right because maybe no one else’s fathers smile at them either. It isn’t like you would know.
You are seven years old, and your teachers say you are bright and smart and clever, but your mother scolds you anyway.
You are eight years old, and the other children are afraid of you. Maybe you shouldn’t yell so loud, but it’s too late once you’ve realised because they don’t invite you to play anymore.
You are nine years old; the other children are still afraid of you, but your dogs aren’t, and you’re not so lonely anymore. You still wish they could talk back to you, though.
You are ten years old. There is a strange boy in your house. And suddenly, you know why your father doesn’t smile at you.
You are eleven years old - old enough to hold a sword, but not old enough to be any good. Your brother is better.
You are twelve-thirteen-fourteen years old, and you are running a race but no one told you when the horn went off. All you can see is your brother's back in front of you, and you're supposed to catch up because you're fast, you know you are, but you're not fast enough. Hell, you can't even outrun the sight of your mother's disappointed face.
(You think your father would make the same face too, if he could watch you. If he ever looked.)
You are fifteen years old, and you can't see the finish line.
You are sixteen years old. You are also supposed to be better than this. Better than you are. Your mother tells you that you're going to lead. You're going to be sect leader some day, boy, she says, and it's stern. Disapproving. Act like it. Your father looks at you more now, but he doesn't ever see you. And the voices in the rooms you enter die away when you walk in, but you can hear them all the same. Not good enough, they say. You should be more like your brother.
You are seventeen years old, and everything is happening all at once.
You are trapped and you run, because your brother is fighting somewhere behind you and you can't leave him. You run and you run and you don't stop, then you run some more until you collapse. And you get back up and keep on running, back again this time because you're safe but your brother isn't, and you can't afford to rest when he could be dying-dying-dead somewhere in the hole you got to crawl out of, and he didn't.
But everything is all right, because he fought and he won, and he's a hero. Like always. Your father looks at him with pride in his eyes, and you're supposed to be used to it, to be numb already, damn it, because it's been seven years and you should know better. But you're not because you're fragile and weak and just plain worth less. When you finally lash out, when you finally give voice to the festering rot inside you, your brother offers to fight for you. And you feel better - you do - because he cares. (But he doesn't tell you that you are wrong.)
You are seventeen, and you are watching your whole world burn before your eyes while you shiver in the shadows. You don't think the screaming will ever stop. And you are angry, so angry. You can't see anything at all except the flames, and you want the rest of the world to burn with you. You should have listened when they told you not to look to long at the fire, because you don't see it coming when a hand reaches out from behind you, and suddenly the only part of you that was ever worth anything is gone.
You are eighteen, and it is back. It is a miracle. But you - all you can see is the flames.
You are nineteen. Your sister is in love, and she is leaving. The smile on her face, the sparkle in her eyes – she is happy, and you should be too. You are. Of course you are. (But then why does your chest hurt so much when she talks about her new home in Lanling?)
You are twenty, and your brother is leaving too. Part of you wants to scream, because he promised. The other part wants to cry instead. He promised he wouldn’t. But you are not enough to make him stay. Not enough to do anything, in fact, because the people he leaves you for are the ones who slaughtered your family. Who left your home in ashes. The flames climb higher.
You are twenty-one. You are still stupid, because now she is gone. Suddenly, you would give anything to watch her leave again, but it’s no use. She’s dead, and her blood stains your brother’s hands.
No – he’s not your brother anymore.
You are twenty-two, and you are alone. They’re all gone now, all of them. Every single one. There isn’t anything left for you anymore, because they’re all you’ve ever had.
But there’s a squalling toddler at your feet, chubby arms outstretched towards you, demanding comfort, face red and streaked with tears. Bawling. There are no words, just a long, high-pitched wail, but you have heard this before. You know what it says. I want my mom and dad.
You were wrong. There is something left.
You are twenty-three, and his first word is mama. He says it with his tiny round face turned up towards yours, his tiny round fist curled around a lock of your hair. It is a gift of immeasurable value, a gift freely given, but you don’t want it. It feels stolen.
He takes his first steps four months later. They are towards you.
You are twenty-four, and you are tired. So tired. You want to close your eyes and let the darkness take you, swallow you so far down it can never spit you out again. But the child – your child – needs you. Your sect needs you. So you force your eyes open and find the hate again. Let the fire burn bright to drive the darkness back, just for one more day. And another. And another.
You are twenty-five, and you are not the only one to notice that you are alone. Every attempt to remedy that meets with disaster. It is obvious, at least to you. You were not made for love.
(That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.)
You are twenty-six, and he has her smile. Her laugh. The hate comes easier every day. Soon, you’ll no longer have to reach for it, for the fire to flicker at your fingertips.
You are twenty-seven-eight-nine, and your bones are hollow. Like a bird’s, you think, light and brittle for flight. You fly too, and you fight; you pretend they won’t snap and you pretend you don’t care if they do, all the while filling the space inside with fire and poison so no one will ever think to look.
You hunt. Monsters, mostly. Monsters-that-were-once-men, men-in-monster-skin, it hardly matters. But even as the violet lightning cracks, splits open bodies and hearts and souls, you can’t admit that they’re all just placeholders. Blank targets for your rage. The boy watches quietly, and learns.
You are thirty. Already, he is so much like you. Your sister would be disappointed; you were never her favourite.
You try your best anyway. You give him a dog, and don’t take it away, and you breathe down his neck during archery training and scold him when he misses a shot. When he yells back, you threaten to break his legs and thank all the gods that he is already better than you could ever be.
You are thirty-one, and you were right. The fire no longer comes when you call – it is a living thing, burning under your skin, raging for the next thing to consume. It hungers like a beast, slavering and growling and pulling at its leash. It wants to hunt, to feed. It wants him.
You are thirty-two, and you don’t care. You’ve never stopped hunting anyway, and you’re just so fucking grateful because the anger is never going to leave you. It’s the only thing that won’t. It’s burrowed beneath your skin, so deep it will never come out, leaching your betrayal and despair and growing fat with your hatred.
You are thirty-three. The boy’s head almost reaches your chin now, and his voice has come to crack and deepen. He wears your sister’s silver bell like a token, a display, the way his father used to wear the scarves she sewed for him. You still make her soup on his birthday. It never tastes quite right.
You are thirty-four, and it’s all falling apart. He’s back, of course he is, and everything is at once upside down and exactly the same as it was. New body, new name, new lover, and isn’t that a surprise – but it’s not, really, because your brother has always had a way of shaking all the cards out of their proper positions and watching them fall exactly in the places that suit him best.
The fire bays for blood, and you scramble to provide, because it’s so hungry and he’s right here. You don’t fight, because he deserves it.
And then he goes and pulls the floor out from under you again, the way he always has, and you’re free-falling again down the exact same cliff you were when you were seventeen, because it wasn’t a miracle. It never was, and you want to laugh because you should have seen this coming. You don’t get miracles – the boy is the closest you’ve ever gotten, and he was your sister’s first.
You’re worthless, just like you’ve always been; any scrap of confidence you’ve managed to claw out of the skeleton of your pride is a mere shard of bone, and you’ve known for years how brittle you are. How breakable.
You owe him, you know now, and the fire roars inside your chest. I didn’t ask to be saved, you think, and you hate him because he lied to you, tricked you, violated your body with deceit while he tried to play the hero. The martyr. But it’s a bleeding wound, dripping red liquid that causes the flames to sputter when it hits, and it’s too late because the fire is going out.
The tiredness comes crashing back, you finally hit the ground, and everyone is there to watch you shatter. And then your brother walks away again, to his new family and new sect and new life and the happy ending he gets because he’s a hero, and all he had to do was turn his back on you to get it.
You are left alone in the aftermath. You, and the other forsaken brother. Two heartbroken orphans at the end of the world.
You are thirty-five, and everyone you have ever loved has walked away. A string of failed relationships, of broken hearts and splintered promises. And you, the common denominator.
The boy is growing up. Nearly a man now. Soon, he will not need you any longer. Perhaps no one ever has.
You are thirty-five. But you are also nothing.