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A House By The River

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My brother took one hundred and thirty two days to wake up.

I counted.

On this tacky word-a-day calendar that Jude or Fitz picked up at the Seven Eleven in town. Every day, I was convinced, as long as I learned the word on the calendar Webb wouldn't die that day. I had no illusions about my magic calendar being able to wake him up, just keeping him alive was enough for me.

The word for 31 March was serendipity. "The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way." A fortunate coincidence. Like a sign that good luck still exists. It was serendipity that Webb opened his eyes on the day the word was serendipity. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.

"Webb?" Tate asked, soft like her voice might break the spell and pull us back to a painful reality where his sky blue eyes didn't look at us with so much love you might burst from it.

He smiled back at her just as soft and wet his lips, eyes flicking between us over and over while he sucked on the ice chips Tate patiently fed him. Me, Jude, Tate, the bulge of Tate's belly where their unborn child grew. And back to me, again and again, until the ice was gone.

Then, his voice hoarse from disuse, he asked, "Where's Fitz?"

Chapter Text

SEVENTEEN AND A HALF YEARS LATER

The boy in my dreams who looks like my father but isn't is talking to me, and as usual I can't hear a word he's saying. His lips move and I can't make out a single syllable, like someone's pulled a curtain over the bottom of his face even though I can see it clearly. I strain my ears with all my might, but all I can hear is the faint rumbling tone that lays under those unknowable words, like someone talking very quietly from two rooms away.

The boy looks upward, like he always does, and like I always do I follow his gaze and am unsurprised by the view. It's our attic and through the skylight you can see every star in the galaxy, and in the dream I can see more than that. I can see a ribbon of light in the sky - aurora borealis, astronomers call it - stretched and folded across the sky, a path to some marvelous place I might want to visit, if the boy would only tell me where the journey leads. He leans in close enough that I can feel the heat pouring off him and if I concentrate maybe I can hear...

"Taylor, wake up."

The dream tumbles away and I snatch at it, holding on to the aurora like a kitestring, but Jessa is insistant on jostling me awake and it slips through my fingers and floats away.

"Are you awake?"

I sigh without opening my eyes. "I am now."

"Oh, good. I was worried you were going to miss it."

Miss it? And then I remember: the passing-on ceremony. I should have moved into the dorms by now, to make it easier for them to fetch me, but I'll miss the sound of the river by my window and classes for the year-elevens only started last week. I crack one eye open. "Are they here yet?"

Jessa nods solemnly. "A whole group of them with flashlights on the front lawn. They'd be really scary if they weren't in their pajamas."

"I'll make sure to tell them you said so." I finally drag myself out of the comfortable softness of my bed, shrug my jacket over my shoulders, and toe on my shoes. "Don't wait up."

"As if."

I thumb the latch and pop open my window, and Jessa immediately turns around. She's known I sneak out through this window since I was eleven and she was seven, but last year she decided if she doesn't see me do it then she doesn't have anything to say when the parentals come asking.

Plausible deniability.

Just rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

I swing my legs out the window, shimmy a little bit, and make a quick leap into the opposite tree. It takes a bit of work to navigate the branches and find the ones that can support the weight of a teenage girl, but I've had a lot of practice over the years, so it doesn't take me long. I glance up at the window when I hit the ground and Jessa ives me a double thumbs up. I can't see her face in the dark but I'd put even odds on a wide toothy grin. Girl never stops smiling, just like her father.

I raise my hand in acknowledgement, then turn and walk into the night. Maybe some people would find this darkness oppressive, but not me. It's like this old English poet Sarah Williams said, "I have loved the stars too dearly to be fearful of the night". This night is as familiar to me as an old friend, warm and comforting like my father's arms. I wrap it tight around myself and go to meet Them.

There are six of Them, all year-twelve girls I've known in some way or another over the last five years, huddled together in the dark with flashlights on their faces. Jessa's right, they'd be pretty menacing if they were wearing something other than flanelette. They are, unfortunately for them, entirely focused on the house, while I've come up the back way behind them. I'm almost on top of them before I give in to the overwhelming urge to say "Boo".

One of the girls shrieks; another drops her flashlight; the other four round on me with a swiftness that would make a hungry pirhana jealous, flashlights trained on my face like a spotlight. I cover my eyes to protect my nightvision, but it's too late.

"Unnecessary blindage," I mutter.

"Unnecessary sneakage," one of the girls says, shoving my shoulder mostly gently. "Jesus, Taylor."

I shrug. "Should have had eyes over here. Weren't you scouts once?"

"Shut up and walk," another girl says, giving me a decidedly less gentle shove in the direction of the road.

"My sister thinks you'd be scarier if you'd worn real clothes," I say a while later. It's a long walk to the meeting house and there isn't much to occupy my attention in the dark. I can feel them sneer even without seeing it. "She's not wrong."

"Thought we told you to shut up."

"I'm better at giving orders than taking them."

I think I hear one of them mutter "you'd better be", but it's too quiet to tell for sure.

Eventually we veer off the Jellicoe Road and onto the invisible, well worn path that leads to the abandoned shack we use as a meeting place. The other Houses are already there, kneeling on the packed dirt with their candles, silent, waiting. If I didn't know better, I'd think we'd walked in on a cult meeting. Of course we're the last to arrive, having come all the way from the River House.

I take my seat beside my House Head, where all the proteges sit, and every eye is immediately on us. My whole life has been leading up to this moment; I refuse to be intimidated. There's a moment of almost uncomfortable silence. I count it out inside my head.

Fifty seven, fifty eight, fifty nine-

The one-in-charge clears his throat and the eyes slowly drift toward him. "Let's get started. This is the last time you'll ever see us," he says dramatically. "Once we leave this room, we no longer exist to you."

I roll my eyes.

"We go back to our families," he continues. "Or to universities, or careers. We answer no more questions. We give no more advice. This is the end of it. So here's how it works: it's a dictatorship, clean and simple. The one-in-charge is in charge, whatever they say goes. The only way they stop being in charge is if the other five agree in writing that they're mentally unfit for command. Only the one in charge can decide what to trade to the Townies and Cadets. Only they can choose to surrender to the enemy." There's a discontented murmur at that. "The point, of course, is to do neither of those things."

A ripple of laughter. Then, silence, as we all collectively realise it's time to name names. I watch a couple of the proteges brace themselves, but I remain calm. Serene.

The one-in-charge looks straight at me and I refuse to flinch. He nods. "Taylor Markham," he says solemnly. "You've always been our top choice. You've been one of our best scouts since you first came to the Jellicoe School and you have a head for tactics. The deal you brokered with the Cadets in year eight was a work of art. The job is yours if you want it."

I get some pretty hateful glares, mostly from Murrumbidgee and Hastings Houses, and at least one grin of encouragement, from Darling.

Apparently I don't react quickly enough, because one of my seniors elbows me in the ribs and I get to my feet quickly.

"Well?" the one-in-charge asks.

"I want it," I say, and am surprised at the effort it takes to keep my voice steady. I didn't expect to be nervous.

The one-in-charge offers me a lopsided grin. "Don't call me when you change your mind."

"I won't." Whether I mean I won't call him or I won't change my mind is up for debate.

He nods and hands me the Little Purple Book and the most up to date map of the Territories, then jerks his head at the door and the year-twelves file out of the shack. When the last of them has disappeared the calm they'd been imposing on the room seems to implode.

You wouldn't think such a small group of teenagers could make enough noise to qualify as a din, but you'd be wrong.

I raise my eyebrows at Ben Cassidy, Clarence House, the only one not taking part in the apparent debate over my appointment. Can you believe this shit?

He smirks in response - Well, what did you expect? - and for a second it's just like old times, when we were best friends, before he kissed me.

And you kissed him back, a traitorous part of my brain whispers. And you liked it.

I look away before I can start blushing and fix my gaze on the loudest of my detractors. "Richard."

He freezes mid-dramatic gesture and turns to look at me like he's made of wood. If looks could kill, Richard would have murdered me a million times. This year.

"Did you have something to say?"

He sneers. "Yeah, actually. We all know you only got this job because your dad was the one-in-charge a million years ago."

"Seventeen," I say. He frowns, confused, so I clarify for him. "My father was the one-in-charge seventeen years ago." And he wrote this Little Purple Book, I want to add, but I decide not to rub it in.

"Whatever. The point is you didn't earn it, so-"

"No? And what were you doing while she was luring the Cardets into an ambush last year?" Ben asks.

The girl from Hastings blushes tomato red and Richard splutters. I shake my head.

"But she lives with teachers!"

"Narnie's not a teacher," I say. "She's just a House advisor. And I doubt the founders are going to interfere in a game they started, but even if they did it's not like they'd be hearing about it from me."

"You heard that, right?" Richard demands. "She's just a legacy! She doesn't deserve it!" He pokes me in the chest. "You don't deserve it!"

"Remove your hand from my person or I'll remove it from yours."

He shrinks back looking vaguely unsure and hateful, but before he can say anything Trini from Darling House speaks up. "Whether she deserves it or not, the one-in-charge gave it to her. We've always trusted his judgement before."

"Can't argue with her loge," Ben says. Richard looks like he might try it anyway.

"Murray House, you're pretty quiet," I say before he can get started again. The boy from Murray House look like he's swallowed his tongue. "What do you think?"

"I, uh-" Richard elbowas him pointedly. "I agree with Murrumbidgee."

"I don't believe you, but you can vote however you want. Hastings, I think we all know where your loyalties lie."

"And Clarence's," Richard sneers. "Isn't that right, Cassidy?"

"Me?"

 Richard waggles his eyebrows and makes a crude hand gesture in my direct. It's nothing we haven't heard a million times before, but now there's enough truth in it to make me bristle and I clench my teeth to avoid snapping at him.

"Darling stands by the decision as made," Trini says quietly. "If anyone cares."

I relax muscle by muscle until I can smile at her genuinely. "Thank you, Trini." I turn back to Richard and keeping the smile on my face isn't much effort but keeping it from turning smug is. "You need five votes to unseat me. I count three, so sit your ass down."

Richard glares, and seeths, and sits his ass down.

Internally, I breath a little sigh of relief. "All rightl, then. On to business." I kneel in the dirt and spread out the map, taking my first look at our borders since last years skirmish. "Does anyone know who's in charge of the Townies this year?"

I look around the circle and get a bunch of shrugs and headshakes. Ben won't look at me.

"Ben?"

"It's, um, it's Chaz."

"Chaz? As in Chaz Santangelo? Raffy's boyfriend? That Chaz?"

"Yeah." He nods quickly.

I pinch my nose. This complicates things. Raffy's been my best friend for as long as I've gone to the Jellicoe School, and Raffy and Chaz have been an item for even longer than that. Which, one the one hand, makes things a whole hell of a lot easier, because I know how Chaz ticks. It's even in the spirit my folks intended when they started the war game, us being friends to start with. But on the other hand he knows how I tick, at least as well as anyone does, and that makes him more of a threat than another leader would be. It also puts Raffaela square in the middle and I wouldn't want to place bets on where her loyalty will fall if it's called into question.

Just like me and Jessa, Raffy's part of the weird little middle ground of students - not entirely one of us, not entirely one of them. Her parents live in Town and by rights she should have gone to the Townie High School there, but they didn't want her to go to the same school they teach at so she's stuck out here with us. Most of the others are state wards; that's what the Jellicoe School is for, that and juvie kids and the occassional old-school hippie.

My folks fall closer to the latter, I suppose. Narnie says the Jellicoe Road is the prettiest road they ever saw, and that's why they built a house out here so close to where all my grandparents died at once. Whatever the reason, it means Jessa and I - and I guess eventually the twin - don't live in the dorms all the time and that makes us Other.

"Okay," I say finally. "I can deal with Chaz. What about the Cadets?"

Ben opens his mouth to answer me but Richard cuts him off. "No, back up, you can 'deal with' Santangelo?"

"That's right."

"And just how are you going to do that?"

"Well I was thinking I might sell him Raffy for a couple of bike trails..." I roll my eyes. "What do you think? They have something we want - the Club House-" I tap the map. "-and we have something they want - the land around it. We should be able to work something out."

"A truce? You're talking about a truce."

"Well, yes, good concept recognition."

"We do not compromise with the enemy!"

"He's right, Tayls," Ben says. "We've never dealt with the Townies before."

"Then maybe it's time we start."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

I take that as my cue to tune them out, and ruminate instead on the dream I've always been pulled out of before the momentus thing can happen. And something momentus is going to happen. Something lifechanging. I can feel it, crackling in the air like electricity, anticipation thrumming through the dream like a bassline. The boy in the attic is going to tell me something that's going to change the way I see the world forever.

"The Cadets own all the access paths," Trini says quietly, and I focus in on her even though no one else does. She traces them out on the map. "All the useful ones, anyway."

I nod. "I know. We'll have to deal with them, too."

"Three way truce. That's pretty ambitious, Taylor."

"Well, I have this legacy to live up to, you see."

She smiles at that and I notice we've drawn an audience. The others are all paying attention now. "One of my girls, Theresa, she goes around with a Cadet. They write letters back and forth and so on. She says he told her that Anson Choi's in charge this year."

And there go my eyebrows. I elbow Ben hard enough to hurt. "Choi is in charge of the Cadets this year? Did you know about this?"

"Yeah." No wonder he wouldn't look at me. "He, uh, he told me last time we practiced."

Ben and Choi are in a band together, them and a couple Townie kids, a sort of jazz-punk fusion that works surprisingly well. They almost have enough songs for an album, these days.

"And the reason you didn't tell me this before?"

He looks uneasy. "Well, you weren't... really talking to me... and then we were talking about the Townies so-"

"Aw, are mummy and daddy fighting?" Richard mocks.

I turn my iciest glare on him, but otherwise pretend he hasn't spoken. "Trini, you're my deputy, do you want to approach the Townies or the Cadets?"

"Deputy?" she asks, clearly surprised. Until very recently I would have chosen Ben, but today I nod. "If you're sure... well, I suppose I'd rather talk with Chaz."

"Fine by me. Richard, how do you feel about approaching the Cadets for me?"

Richard looks even more surprised than Trini did and I stifle the urge to laugh. Everyone looks surprised, in fact, but you know what they say about keeping your enemies close.

"Well?" I prompt after a minute's stunned silence.

"Yeah, okay," he says gruffly. "What do you want us to say?"

"I'm calling a summit, as defined in the Little Purple Book paragraph 223."

He opens his mouth, maybe to argue, maybe to ask how I know the paragraph number when I haven't had the book before, but whatever he means to say he thinks better of it and just nods instead.

Ben shoots me a look I wish I could ignore, a look that says he knows I chose Richard to spite him, and I want to tell him he's wrong but I don't know how anymore. I settle for a brief shake of my head and move on the the next order of business.