EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO…
Nathan was allowed to go home on the Friday before graduation. He hadn't seen his family since Christmas (for spring break, he had chosen instead to do some volunteer work in the town by the school... oh, and totally nail that hot blonde girl who worked at the movie theater) and he was excited to see his mom, his dad, and his little brother. Mom and Dad were excited to see him, too, but Peter wriggled out of the hug and ran away without even saying hello.
"He's been a little moody lately," said Nathan's mother Angela. She smiled at Nathan and lightly pinched his cheek. "I think he misses you."
"Are you planning on sending him to boarding school, too?"
His mother shook her head firmly. "Absolutely not. I think that it's best that he stays home, so I can keep an eye on him. I don't think it would be beneficial to him. He doesn't have your levels of sophistication... your independence. This is the age when that sort of thing becomes apparent to me; by his age, you were calling the editor of the newspaper because they stopped carrying your favorite comic strip. Then again, most little boys aren't like you." Her keen eyes flickered over Nathan's face, as though trying to see something extraordinary just under the skin. Finding nothing, she sighed. "Try to enjoy the time you do have with him."
He wished she wouldn't say things like that; she made it sound like one of them was going to die. Nathan was just going to college, not to the boneyard. And they were the ones who had sent him to military school, where the headmaster was one of Dad's friends, in the first place. Sure, he'd loved it and done well, but it wasn't like he had chosen to not be there for his baby brother. He'd never choose that.
Nathan had spent the last several years hundreds of miles away, not really even knowing much about who this kid was, but loving him like crazy anyway. All he really knew first-hand of Peter was the squirmy, cranky baby who quieted like magic whenever Nathan was around; or the aggravating, shrieky, destructive little brat of the last three years, who had to have his meals in a separate room. Because of this, even on his visits back home, Nathan hadn't seen much of Peter.
Nathan and his dad found Peter upstairs in the house, playing with Legos on the floor in front of the TV, watching 3-2-1 Contact. Nathan couldn't help smiling. It was an old episode of the show, one he remembered seeing when he was a kid, during one of those odd rare times that he was home and not at school. He squatted next to Peter, who was completely absorbed with the Legos and the TV show. Something had definitely changed; what had been a mad creature who seemed obsessed with breaking expensive things was now a gentle, rosy-cheeked lamb who made almost no sound at all.
"Hey, Pete. Did you get my last letter?" Nathan asked lovingly. In response, Peter just nodded. "Do you like this show?"
Peter didn't say anything immediately, and Nathan almost asked again. Peter's shy, whispery voice was almost too quiet to hear. "...Yeah."
"What do you like about it?"
Again, a long pause before speaking. "I like the spearmints."
"The spearmints...? Spear... Oh. Experiments." Nathan laughed toward his dad, who watched them intently, without smiling. "You like science, Peter?"
Nathan felt his chest tighten with love. He wanted to hug and kiss Peter to death for being so adorable; he wanted to just roll Peter up and keep him in his pocket for the rest of time. What a sweet, brilliant little brother! Totally worthy of being related to him. "You gonna be a scientist when you grow up? Do lots of 'spearmints'?"
Peter didn't know he was being mocked. "Yeah." He almost smiled, and added after a minute, "Or maybe I'll play for the Jets."
"Play for the...!" Nathan laughed out loud, and even their father smiled a little. Peter wasn't as babyish as Nathan had first assumed. Made sense; he was seven now, and it was time for him to have some ambitions. "Peter, the... Jets aren't a very good team right now."
"But they're the hometown team. You have to like them."
"Uh, no, you don't."
"Don't you have to like the hometown team?" Peter finally looked at Nathan. His face was all eyes, wide and accusatory. It was too much expression for a little kid to be wearing; it went past poignant into laughable territory.
"Not if they're f—uh, screwin' up."
"I don't think that's right." Peter shook his head sadly.
Nathan could barely keep himself from cracking up. "Well, why do you say that, Peter?"
"’Cos when I screw up, you won't like me anymore."
Nathan sighed, and felt slightly awful. His mother had been right; Peter was too young in spirit to leave home, or even hear anything that he shouldn't hear. He wondered who had told Peter that he screwed up; you didn't say something like that to a first-grader, no matter what the things he broke cost. "But Peter, that's different; you're my brother."
"Yeah... but I'm on your hometown team. But you don't like us anymore because we're screwin' up. You don't like New York, you don't like the house, you don't like mom and dad—" Peter picked up a fistful of Legos and threw them hard against the TV. For once, nothing broke.
"Hey, hey, hey. I love all those things. And I love you. No matter what. I promise." Nathan grabbed Peter and hugged him tight. "I love you all, no matter what."
Peter pushed himself away, but not completely out of the hug, and stared at Nathan, that intense, dark fire still in his eyes, burning hotter than before, if such a thing was possible. Nathan could no longer find it laughable; now it was almost scary. Peter hadn't gotten over whatever formless anger had made him break all that stuff; instead, he'd contained it, focused it. "No matter what?" Peter demanded.
Nathan didn't back down from the stare, his heart surging in the way that it only did when he had been profoundly humbled. "No matter what," he replied, "really. I swear. I swear on my life."
And just for a second, Peter glanced over at their father. When Nathan saw that, he hugged Peter close again, and this time Peter let himself be held. He said against Nathan's shoulder, "Don't leave, okay?"
"I'm not going anywhere right now."
"No, don't leave." It was almost a shout, and Peter's tiny fingers taloned into Nathan's shoulders.
"What's happening, Pete?" Nathan whispered into Peter's ear, trying not to be overheard, knowing it was hopeless. Peter just dug in tighter, hard enough to make Nathan involuntarily hiss in pain.
"I wish... something... really bad would happen to me," Peter whispered back. "Then you'd have to stay."
"That's enough, Peter," said their father quietly. Peter let go, and put his perfect angel mask back on.
From that point on, Nathan knew what was underneath.