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If It's What You Ask

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Let us look back in time to two houses, two families, two long gardens, and the four children who played in them.

Emma remembers the days of her childhood semi-fuzzily, with memory generally marred by time or nostalgia. She remembers the house, though, and the garden. She was born in that house, from a mother who wanted a natural, comfortable birth, and a father willing to pay anything to let her have it. She remembers the house before Erik came along, remembers it as an austere, white world that she, often detached and rarely childlike, hardly changed at all.

She remembers toddling out into the garden, and all the way down the long, long lawn, further than she'd ever been allowed to go before, and at the bottom there was a fence, and in that fence there was a hole, and she looked through the hole and on the other side was a boy, happily playing in the mud at the bottom of his garden. She remembers seeing the woman she thought was his mother come down to pick him up, and ducking behind the fence to remain unseen. She remembers hearing her mother call her back and tell her off for getting a speck of dust on her shoes. She never went down there again, but occasionally, when the garden was quiet, she could hear another child's voice on the other side of the fence.

It wasn't long after that that her mother walked out of the door into a different life, and her father brought a string of other women into Emma’s. Usually, they left not long after they came, but one stayed. And it wasn't long after that that another child's voice came into her own home, as Erik came screaming and wailing into the world. He was, according to his mother, a difficult birth, a difficult baby and a difficult child. Unlike Emma, who inherited her mother's innate sense of disconnection with the rest of the world and her father’s intense fascination with the way it worked, Erik had inherited his mother's fierceness and his father's stubbornness, and he exercised in every way he could. Their father retreated into the upstairs of the house, a cohort of nannies took care of Erik and left Emma to her ways, and his mother left not long after that.

A string of girlfriends came in and out, but the fleet of nannies were the ones who raised the children, and Emma remembers staring enviously at the fence at the back of the garden and the loving mother she imagined living on the other side. As she later learned, what was in fact happening on the other side was a string of affairs, an unwanted younger sister, and a mother who ran away from the real world into a drugged one.

(She remembers a teen Charles saying that the grass was always greener on the other side, and that they both agreed they'd rather have neither of their lives.)

Raven, like Erik, was a firebrand. Whereas Charles was innocent and happy to do as instructed, and Emma placid and happy to amuse herself, Erik and Raven both delighted in making messes and destroying things. Emma abhorred it, Charles indulged it, a fleet of nannies cleaned up.

Unsurprisingly, it was Raven who brought down the fence. It happened with a sudden crash and boom. Emma, sitting on the patio, at the wise old age of 9, reading, looked up in surprise to see a worried looking 7 year old Charles, a happy looking 3 year old Raven, and looked around to see an intrigued looking 5 year old Erik. Erik and Raven took one look at each other, and Erik raced down the garden to play with this new stranger. Emma recognised Charles as the boy she'd once seen on the other side of the fence, and walked down rather slower than Erik, to make sure that they were all okay.

She remembers their first conversation well.

'Where's your mom?'

'Upstairs, sleeping.'

'No, she's there behind you.'

'That's not mommy! That's Calla, she looks after me. Where's yours?'

'I don't know. Not home. The Nannies look after us.'

'The nannies?'

'That's what dad calls them.'

And then they were distracted by two loud cries filling the air, as both Raven and Erik managed to hurt themselves at the same time. Two nannies ran out from respective gardens, scooped up two children, apologised in general and lead four kids back to their respective homes. They were separated, but from that day on they were inseparable.

Later, after dinner, Emma's dad called her into his study and asked her about the fence. She told him in stunted, swift words, and then asked him if they could keep it down for a bit. He agreed, mostly because they would need to negotiate the repairs with the family on the other side, and the next evening she came to his study and said simply, 'They're called Raven and Charles, and Charles' aunt named Raven which is why it's such a weird name, and they don't really know any other kids, and Charles' dad has a really big collection of books but he’s not usually allowed in, and Raven's energetic and tires him out, and he'd like to try our deckchairs, but I wasn't sure about letting him in so we watched the babies at the end of the gardens but they really want to come over. Can they?'

The dust that rises when fences fall could also be called magical friendship dust. Instead of a fence, they installed a door, and the kids could all get in and out as they pleased (with a guardian’s permission). At first it was Raven-Erik Charles-Emma and then Emma and Charles got older and boys/girls had cooties, and it was Raven-Erik, Charles, Emma, and then Raven got a bit older and started being interested in girl stuff and Erik got a bit older and started being able to get Charles to play along with him, and then it became Charles-Erik Raven-Emma.

There were stages, as there always were with friendships. But other kids were exhausting, whereas Charles and Raven were not, and Charles would always be there with friendly, clever eyes and Raven would always be there with her questions and her grumbles about not yet being old enough.

'Old enough for what?' Emma would always ask, and 'old enough for everything!' Raven would always reply.

In time, they moved from gardens to homes, in time, Raven and Emma would move from vague friendship to vague competition, sitting on opposite sides of beds while Raven read and Emma painted her nails, and then the same side of the bed as Raven grudgingly let Emma paint hers too. Meanwhile the boys, one room over, moved endlessly from game to game, never able to find something that satisfied Charles' imagination and Erik's restlessness.

Over time, Emma's father started teaching her more about the family business and the running thereof, starting teaching her how to be his prodigal daughter and giving her the job of leashing her wayward brother in as much as she could. Over time, Charles' father exchanged bottles for paperwork, as he pushed it across the table to Charles, and his eyebrows furrowed as he tried to understand what the rows of numbers meant. Over time, the rules set in place for Erik tightened, and the more he fought against them the less patience Emma had, until she drove a permanent wedge between them because she didn't understand why he wouldn't just listen. Over time, Raven remained the firebrand she was, didn't listen to mother nor father nor brother nor nanny nor Emma nor Erik nor anyone else. She dyed her hair, pierced her nose in a friend's bathroom, drew out tattoos on her skin and often ran screaming from her house into the bottom of the Frost-Lehnsherrs' garden.

Over time, Emma discovered her talent of bending people to her will, Charles discovered his of being able to work out what people were trying to say without their words (willingly or not), Raven discovered hers of being easily able (if unwilling) to change herself as people wanted to see her, and Erik his of being hard as nails and unwilling to listen to anyone at all.

Charles and Erik remained seducible, Emma and Erik remained competitive, Erik and Raven remained incorrigible, Raven and Charles remained playful,Charles and Emma remained clever,
and Emma and Raven remained that elusive mystery...girls.

But the board was set, their roles were laid out for them, and eventually even Raven stopped coming through the door to hide in their garden. Emma stuck in the study, learning whatever her father thought she ought to know, Charles holed up in the library, using studying as an excuse to stay away from responsibilities, Erik shut up in his room, ignoring the world and whatever it had to say to him, and Raven hiding in her other friends' houses as they told her that her family was awful and she had to run away.

She did so, three times. The first time, Charles brought her back; the second time, Emma; the third time, the police. On the way back, she tried to tell them that her dad was drunk and her mom stoned and she was raised by nannies and she wasn't allowed other friends until she accidentally broke through the fence at the bottom of the garden and all she wanted was to not be holed up in that shitty house, and they told her to stop complaining and enjoy her rich life.

Emma knows this, because they dropped her off at the wrong house, and she let Raven use her shower and change into some of her clothes, and helped her cut her hair short and deal with an infected cartilage piercing. At the end of the night, four days missing, she returned her home with a well-spun lie, and Raven grudgingly agreed to be her partner in crime.

Meanwhile, Erik and Charles, she assumes, got up to equally messed up and complicated hijinks. Erik certainly never told her, and if Charles told Raven she never told Emma.

She knows, now, that Erik loves Charles. She knows this in the same way that she knows he hates their parents, because he doesn't try to hide it, and she wonders constantly where he learned to love like that. Certainly not the same place as her - Raven is pretty, but there is the tangled mess of childhood between them, and a few nights in a hotel does not a relationship make. Besides, Raven is constantly chasing skirt, and Emma has a front to maintain. She's never felt interest in another woman apart from Raven, and that interest is one half sexual and one half platonic; she assumes Raven is the same. But Erik and Charles...they love each other. Whatever messed up, tangled, childhood friendship sits between them, it doesn't matter the way her and Raven's does, and they love each other.

At 18, Emma went off to a different state for four years to get a degree. Halfway through, she heard that Charles had moved to England to get his. Erik stayed at home, unsure of his future, and when Emma graduated she moved to the West Coast for a year, before Erik left to rove the States and she was summoned home. Not long after, Raven ran away to England to join Charles, and she stood in the garden by herself. No point having a big family house with no family in it - her father sold it and moved to his own penthouse. She leased a flat a few blocks away, kept a spare room for Erik whenever he came home, and when eventually Raven and Charles came back, it was to a summons to the old family house.

It's symbolic. You grow up, you move away, you come home, your house is sold, as is your back neighbours’. No more joined garden, no more afternoons in the sun or safe houses. Time passes. Raven leaves the family, moves to the city. Charles has his first mental break, joins her. The Frost-Lehnsherrs join the Xaviers' circles, they see each other sometimes, presumably Charles and Erik start their courtship.

Raven, just like when she was 3, knocks the proverbial fence down, by stepping on Emma's dress one time. They get drunk together after a party for old time's’ sake, and while they leave under the pretense of going back the same way, they in fact go back to the same flat. They pick up their game a few steps ahead of where they put it down, and meanwhile, unseen, Erik and Charles are fucking like bunnies.

Meanwhile, their fathers and uncles and business partners compete from opposing skyscrapers, the paparazzi comments on their every move, Emma still tells Erik off when he gets too drunk and fucks up, and Charles still fondly indulges Raven's every odd desire.

It's like nothing changed, except everything changed.