Blood and Water

three

Her little brother comes into the world kicking and screaming. Literally. He screws his eyes up and throws his small fists into the air repeatedly, as if he wants to fend off the world. That’s after a labour that lasts most of the day, of course, because Adrian’s always been an awkward bastard – it leaves their mother sweaty and exhausted, and Olivia with several new “do not use at the dinner table” words in her vocabulary. (She will, when the neighbours they most want to impress are in the middle of the salmon course. But that’s for another day.)

She doesn’t really understand any of this at the time. At the time, she just tries to shield her ears from the annoying noise in the corner. When she looks, she sees him, small and strange and pink as a prawn.

She wrinkles her nose. Ew. What an ugly little thing. Why does her mother look so happy?

 ~

seven

She’s half-asleep when she hears a noise. It’s quiet, there and gone as quickly as a breath of wind. A snuffle, what sounds like a sob. It’s on the other side of a wall, but she still hears it; she hears most noises, when he’s making them, like her ears are a radio tuned just to his frequency. It sounded… scared.

She’s up, out of bed and padding into the corridor before she really realises what she’s doing. She can hear her mother snoring a couple of rooms away. She doesn’t want to wake her. She’s busy sleeping, and she always gets angry when she’s busy and Olivia interrupts her. That’s why she closes the office door, why she tells them to “hesitate to call”. Olivia doesn’t get it – it’s not like they’re phoning her. Dad says that it’s an expression, and that she’s seven, so there’s a lot she doesn’t get.

Maybe. She shrugs at the thought, opens Adrian’s door.

He looks tiny curled up in his bed, just a lump beneath the sheets. She hears him panting like a dog… or like someone who’s crying. Yeah, he really does sound frightened – it’s more obvious now that she’s closer to him. She edges forward, raises a hand to the corner of the duvet, and pulls the sheet away.

He’s so pale he’s nearly the same colour as his hair. (As hers, too, hers is the same colour.) He’s shivering, and he’s making distressed little noises. His lips almost look blue in the half-dark. Then she looks closer. No, they are blue. His teeth are clacking together. She touches his arm and it’s freezing.

“Adrian,” she says.

There’s steam coming from his hand, and as she looks, she sees it – ice, slowly crawling up his fingers. It’s at his wrist now, and it’s climbing higher…

“Adrian!” she hisses, shoving him.

He rolls over, mumbling something, but then he seems to wake up. His eyes snap open, and he sits up, nearly headbutting her in the process. “Cold,” he says. “Why – why’m I cold?”

“I don’t – You did something.” She looks down at his hand again. The ice is moving back down it, and his skin’s turning pink again. Good. He was scaring her. (He still is, but she doesn’t want to say it.) “Why were you scared?” she asks.

He hangs his head. “I had a bad dream. There were these trees, and…” He trails off. She waits, but he doesn’t say anything. He does that sometimes – he’ll start, and then it’s like he gets lost and takes a while to find his way back again.

She’s still staring at his fingers. The ice is nearly gone now, but they’re still steaming. The night isn’t even cold, but he is. “Have you seen this?” she asks him, taking his hand. “What you did. It was… I think it was magic.”

Now he looks down, stares at his hand. He’s always had these big blue eyes, like a puppy or some other baby animal. He looks frightened all the time. But now? Now they’re even bigger, and tears are welling up in them.

They know about the mages, the Scholars. They’re amazing, like something out of stories, and they’re scary. They can hurt you, kill you, but they can heal, too. So many of them seem afraid, even with the watches, the ones that shine and are meant to help them.

He’s crying properly now, and he’s leaning like he’s going to fall over. His shoulder touches hers. She tucks her arm round him and hugs him tight. He’s sobbing, whimpering, and he’s shaking almost as badly as he was when she came in. He cries like he’ll never get another chance, like he’s afraid he’ll never stop. She doesn’t let go, and she listens. The rest of the house is silent.

He’s four. He doesn’t understand.

 ~

seventeen

Sometimes she really does wonder if there’s something supernatural in the way she can just find him.

She sees the corner and sees that a few feet away, they’re laying into him – badly. There are three of them, two boys and a girl. They look about his age; they’re probably in his year. One of the boys has Adrian’s watch and is holding it above his head, laughing.

Adrian isn’t even making the effort to reach for it; his eyes are screwed tightly shut and he’s curled in on himself. Trying to shield himself from the blows and leave as little of himself accessible as possible. Like he’s used to this, because he is, and Olivia hates them in that moment, hates them so much she’s frightened by the intensity of it.

The girl spits on him, then frowns at her friends. “He’s a bloody warlock and he’s just taking it, look. Shouldn’t he be frying us or something?”

Olivia’s shoulders tense at the slur, but she knows the answer to the girl’s question. Sure, he’s a Scholar, but he’s also Adrian, and that’s the problem. He could, but he won’t, because it wouldn’t be “the right thing to do.” As it stands, she’s not sure she much cares about the right thing – whatever gets them away from her little brother works for her. If they end up a little scorched round the edges, well, all’s fair in war.

He seems to be abnormally talented at getting beaten up. Maybe it’s the magic – well yeah, it’s mainly the magic – but that isn’t helped by the fact that he’s quiet and spends most of his time with his head buried in books. It’s probably jealousy, seeing as they can barely string a sentence together.

She stands there for a moment longer, frozen with anger, and then she sees him take a boot to the ribs. That kicks her brain into gear, too. She runs, and she knows that the three of them could probably take her if they wanted to, but she also knows that she has a reputation for refusing to put up with shit. She desperately hopes that that will be enough.

“What the fuck’s going on?” she calls. She reaches them, throws her shoulder into a shove that sends the larger boy reeling. Good. The little shit deserves it.

“You the sister, then?” He looks down at Adrian. “What, you need a girl to fight for you?”

Adrian shudders, mutters to the ground, “Fuck. Off. She’s…” Nothing more. Maybe he’s got lost in his head again. He still does, sometimes, when he’s scared or so angry he’s frothing with it.

She snatches the watch from the girl, who’s still staring stupidly at the scene unfolding in front of her, then gives them all a vicious glare. “You move, or I move you. Your choice.”

They move. Yeah, good.

It’s not the victory, but it’s victory, even if she’ll probably have to do this all again in a few days anyway.

 ~

nineteen

It’s a shitty little bedsit, cramped and stereotypically student-y, even if she isn’t a student. The bed’s more of a futon, if she’s honest, and something that might be damp crawls round the higher corners of the walls. Even so, it’s hers. Sometimes that’s enough.

Today it isn’t. The walls are crowding in on her, the shadows seem longer and she’s shivering relentlessly, even though she’s boiling. She remembers that heatwave when she was six, when all she wanted to do was crawl into the freezer, shut the door and maybe die. This is worse.

Her mind knows she’s ill, but it’s like her body hasn’t caught up yet – even though she’d really like to get up, maybe find a doctor at some point, her legs won’t move.

She tries again. Nothing. Dammit.

There’s a noise outside her door, probably of something small being knocked over, and a scuffling footstep. Another. They could be robbing her for all she cares, but right now, she needs someone. Anyone.

“Help,” she croaks. Shit, that’s barely anything. A mouse wouldn’t hear that. She coughs, tries again. “Help!”

Better.

The footsteps pause. Then: “Olivia?” The voice is muffled, but it’s definitely Adrian’s. Oh, thank God. Well, thank her dipshit little brother.

“In here,” she manages.

“Right. I…” A pause, and Olivia tenses, wondering what –

Something strange happens to the door handle. It takes her groggy, sickness-addled mind  a few seconds to work out what’s going on, but when the locks begin glowing and then melting, she knows.

The door opens a minute later and lets in Adrian, who tosses the lock between his hands, puffing and making the universal noise of Hot! Hot! He lays it carefully down on her (metal) kitchen counter and then rushes over to her, nearly tripping over his own knees in the process. That boy’s always had too much leg.

He shakes mage-embers from his hands and comes to kneel next to her bed. His face looks like someone’s kicked him. “Christ.”

“Mmph.” Seems like her vocal cords have given up and all, but yeah, that’s about the sum of it.

His brow creases, and he looks even more worried than usual. He touches a hand to his forehead and hisses. Then he looks at his hands, and suddenly they’re frosted over, and no, no, she doesn’t want the nightmare and his fear again, of course her brother isn’t a Scholar…

He presses icy hands to her face and she wants to cry. It’s like heaven. In fact, she swears she can feel tears on her cheeks, though she prays it’s just melting ice. She’s got enough mind left to be embarrassed. For a moment, she can’t look at him.

“Eyes on me.” His voice is so calm. She thought being calm with things going to shit was her job. He shouldn’t be looking down at her like that, all gravity and hard lines. Hell, he shouldn’t be looking down at her at all. He’s her little brother, why won’t he remember that, he’s –

She notices he’s not talking. For once in his life, he’s shut up.

He doesn’t speak again until he calls the ambulance. Olivia lets her eyes drift shut, for once glad she’s cold.

~

twenty

Adrian looks like shit. It’s twenty degrees outside, but he’s shivering and his teeth are chattering. He’s leaning against the doorframe as if he’s afraid he’ll fall if he doesn’t, and when he raises his head his eyes look like something’s chasing him. She’s seen this before. Not often, but sometimes there’s  a bad job and one of the guys will come back and he’ll have a little of this about him. Words like “therapist” and “post-traumatic stress” start getting bandied about. As said: it doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

Often enough for her to understand.

She takes his shoulders and, gently as she can, drags him into her flat. He’s still shaking, and his breathing is all wrong – in-out, in-out, but too loud and harsh. He sounds like a rusty see-saw. He’s swaying on his feet.

She says, “Talk to me.”

He just shakes his head, still grimacing, pained, his breathing still wrong. Like it isn’t a choice. Can’t, not won’t. Adrian not talking? Something’s very, very wrong.

He collapses onto his couch, curling up and putting his face in his hands. All at once she remembers the boy on the playground floor, and she has to blink against the strength of it.

Adrian.

He looks up at that, and she mentally sighs in relief. That is, until she sees the tears coursing down his cheeks and the way his face is crumpling. “Cambridge…” he manages. A sharp inhale, more of a sob. “It’s all gone. Fuck, it’s all gone…”

She sits next to him, telling him it’s going to be alright, he’s alright, and tries to believe it. 

It’ll be alright. She’ll make it alright.

Vignettes and pieces of character study. Might eventually make it into Light As Air proper, but for now, here it is.

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Light As Air: Part Twelve

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It takes him far too long to wake up, and he has to work to surface from under the misty haze of residual tiredness. He has the gritty, dissatisfied feeling that signifies of a bad night’s sleep. He blinks, wondering why everything’s become dark – has he gone blind? – before he finds that he’s staring at his pillow. Oh. He rolls over to eye the ceiling instead. It’s not exactly a more interesting view, but it’s less likely to make him panic and wonder about whether his vision needs correcting. Stifling a yawn, he rubs at his eyes, the gritty remnants of sleep scraping against his eyelids and making him grimace. Time to get up, he thinks.

He checks his alarm clock. 7:30, the display reads, the red, square letters blinking in the half-darkness. He’s got an hour and a half before he has to open up – more than enough time to get ready and sort things out. He sits up with a groan, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He stands and stretches in the same movement, meandering slowly into the corridor and down to the bathroom. In an absentminded reflex, he turns on the light as he walks past it.

Hiss. The sound is quiet, muffled through the wood of the door, and it’s oddly soothing to his ears. It’s too early in the morning for them to be properly working yet – they tend to take a while to warm up. The sound’s gentle, a nice thing to wake up to.

He pauses at the door, still too bleary to think, and presses a hand to the door. It doesn’t give. Locked.

He becomes aware of three things at once: Angela is living with him, Angela is in his shower, he’s standing in only his boxers when she could come out of the bathroom any minute, and Angela is living with him.

Bollocks.

He freezes, spending another second too long blinking at the bathroom door. Then he turns and heads back to his bedroom rather more quickly than he came out of it.

Books, he thinks. He’ll read while he waits. He heads to the bookcase, and he happens to walk past his mirror as he does. He didn’t want one in here; he didn’t particularly mind it, but he hadn’t asked for one. Olivia forced him to drag it in here, saying that he’d probably forget to put his trousers on if he didn’t catch his reflection once in a while. He conceded that she might have a point, but he’s starting to regret it.

He forgets, sometimes. He’s never been particularly self-involved, and he often doesn’t think about what he looks like until he’s actually standing in front of a mirror; it can sometimes be a rather unpleasant surprise. He’s all angles and corners: skinny arms with sharp elbows, prominent knees. His clavicles stand out starkly in the yellow light, and the whiteness of his skin makes him look sickly, jaundiced. He has the potential for good shoulders, he supposes, but that’s about it. He perhaps has the sufficient height to be imposing, but without the width, he’s simply a beanpole. It’s not as if he’s underweight or ill – he’s not shuffling his way towards the grave, and he doesn’t he look like he is, either – but he doubts he’ll ever grace the cover of fitness magazines. He’s just… resoundingly average, somehow, awkward and inelegant. He doesn’t look like the sort of person who’s designed for anything – he looks like someone most comfortable sitting on the sidelines, pretending they’re not bothered by the fact that they can’t be useful, and unfortunately, that is indeed who he’s been for most of his life.

He shakes his head. Whether he’s disappointed with himself or with the entire situation, he doesn’t know. Still, he doesn’t linger next to the mirror, and he does his resolute best to ignore the sinking feeling somewhere under his ribcage. It’s rather too familiar by this point.

He’s been rereading Great Expectations for ten minutes when he hears the sound of the bathroom door opening, and then the sound of footsteps along the corridor. He keeps his eyes on the book, even though the letters are blurring before his eyes and he’s only pretending to read. When he hears the click of the spare room door shutting, he sounds the mental all-clear and decides that it’s safe to use the bathroom.

When he makes his way downstairs – clean, dressed and overly cautious – she’s in the kitchen. She’s fetching herself a glass of water. She’s pristine, her hair carefully styled, wearing what he knows is the charcoal suit from the first time they met – he was terrified enough by the meeting that even her attire stuck in his memory. He wonders if she wakes up like that, if she even had any need of the shower or if she was simply curious. He then realises that his mind has drifted perilously close to the danger zone of Angela in the shower. Feeling ill, he quickly diverts his thoughts from that thoroughly unwelcome road. She raises the glass to her mouth and takes a sip of water, only lowering it to say, “Good morning.”

He jumps. She didn’t even turn round, or give any other acknowledgement of his existence. “Morning.” He moves on muscle memory, and he’s halfway to shoving a couple of slices of bread in the toaster when he thinks of it. “Do you – do you eat?”

She deigns to look at him this time. “I’m in a body that’s mostly human. It needs food as a human’s would.”

Oh. That could be a problem. Feeding two people, rather than one? Doable, but not necessarily pleasant or allowing much room for manoeuvre. He tries his best not to let his face fall.

“I’ll pay for my own provisions,” she says.

Inside his head, he exhales in relief. He lifts a slice of bread, suddenly much more chipper than he was, and asks, “Toast good for you?”

She nods. “That’ll be fine.”

It’s one of the fancy four-slot toasters, so he inserts two more slices and sets them to toast.

While he’s making a cup of tea, the bread pops up. He takes the slices, hissing at how hot they are, makes a desperate grab for a couple of plates and then puts butter on them. It’s probably polite to ask if she wants anything on hers, but he’s still a quarter asleep and she seems not to care as long as she doesn’t starve, so he serves the toast as it is.

Which is how he finds himself in the hopelessly strange situation of eating breakfast with an angel, the two of them mowing through the toast. She’s sitting opposite him on the little kitchen table, and he’s oddly gratified by the fact that even she can’t make eating toast quiet and elegant: it crunches, spraying crumbs onto the plate, even though her bites are far from careless.

The silence is broken by the shrill ring of a telephone. It’s the landline, so he dusts the crumbs off his hands and trudges to the phone. “Hello?”

It’s Olivia. “Hi. Is this a bad time? You’re sounding rather bleary.”

“No, it’s… it’s unusually early, is all. Is there any particular reason for you calling?”

“I’m sorry, I thought you’d have been up for a while by now. I didn’t mean to…”

“You didn’t. You’re absolutely fine. Now, you were saying?”

“Apparently I’ve made it to the top three applicants in the job I’m trying out for. It means I’m in with a solid chance.”

He grins. “That’s great.” He means it. She’s spent far too long searching, and though she does her best to appear chipper, he knows full well that she’s slowly beginning to despair.

He hears the sounds of a plate being dumped into the sink, shortly followed by the loud thud of a heavy object – he has a horrible feeling that he knows exactly which heavy object in particular it is – being dumped on the kitchen table. “What are you doing?” he asks, as quietly as he possibly can. When he turns, sure enough, she has the hideous, brick-thick book open and is flicking through its pages. Though he ‘ll freely admit that he’s curious, now really isn’t the time, and he thought from what she said that he wasn’t allowed to see inside it. If so, why has she plonked it in front of him within easy reach?

“Research,” is Angela’s curt reply, and she doesn’t even make a token effort to lower her voice.

He knows Olivia’s heard her. It’s barely there, but he hears it – the smallest intake of breath down the line. His silence quickly makes it obvious that he knows she knows – good God, that sentence is going to get confusing. The silence continues for the space of a few breaths, then Olivia says, “Should I ask?”

Light As Air: Part Eleven

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He turns at the sound of a knock on the door. It creaks open slowly. “Sorry,” Olivia says, “I just…” She looks round in surprise. “She’s gone?”

He nods, preparing himself as best he can for the inevitable onslaught of questions.

Sure enough: “What was that all about?” she asks. It will be the first question of many, he just knows it.

Adrian refuses to comply. He’s done enough things he doesn’t want to do today. “Believe me, it’s complicated and there really isn’t time to go into it. It’s been – it’s been a long day. Do you mind if I kick you two out for a while?”

It’s blunt, but she’s unruffled by it. It’s just the way they communicate; the truth expressed fairly seems better than a million awkward excuses. “Certainly. Is there anything you want me to help out with?”

“No, thanks.” His voice sounds distant even to his own ears. He wants to sleep, to bury his head under the covers and wait until this all blows over – if it ever does. “But thank you.” Wonderful – it seems like he’s a master of tautology today.

She gives him her best attempt at a smile, but it settles into something utterly unconvincing; she still looks too worried. “I’ll just finish my sandwich, then I’ll head out.”

Something compels him to ask. “What did you end up with?”

She shrugs. “Gouda and cucumber. It’s actually not that bad.” She closes the door, heading back into the other room.

He would love to be good company, he really would, but he spends most of the next few minutes trying desperately to involve himself in a novel and pretend that none of this is happening. When Olivia and Paul come through, Paul very obviously being hustled out of the door by Olivia, he bids them goodbye as cheerfully as he can, even though he knows it sounds depressingly lacklustre.

He spends the next few hours doing the accounts and hoping desperately that Angela won’t return. Night has fallen, and darkness lurks outside the window. The ticking of a clock in the back room is all he can hear as he sits at the counter, trying to sort out the accounts and just ending up with a headache. If anything, he’s better at this kind of thing than Paul – it’s one of the reasons why they decided to go into business together – but the combination of stress and maths is definitely not one he can say that he enjoys. If he sees the word revenue again, he thinks he may well scream.

When the bell above the door rings, his shoulders slump. He looks up, much as he wants not to, and sees Angela entering the shop, walking towards him. She isn’t exactly unexpected, but somehow, his heart still sinks at the sight.

He doesn’t want to speak first, but the silence is getting to him, so he asks, “How did the business go?”

“Well.” Her eyes flit around the room; she’s obviously looking for the suitcase.

“It’s behind the counter. I didn’t want anyone trying to steal it.”

“I see. That was probably a wise decision.” It’s almost respectful. Bloody hell, he really must have fallen asleep on the accounts. She pauses, looks up. “Your friends have left.”

He wonders if she can hear the lack of noise, or if she just has some sort of rather terrifying mind-reading skill. He hopes it’s the former, but with the direction his luck seems to be heading, he wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter. “Yes, they have. Why?”

He returns to the arduous task of accounting, but looks up at the rustle of clothing and the footsteps close by. She leans to reclaim her suitcase. She’s less than a foot away, and the action leaves them almost eye to eye. Her gaze falls to the accounts. “That should be forty two pounds,” she says after a moment.

He doesn’t ask her which is the relevant column – he knows already, he simply hadn’t got around to correcting it. Still, it’s wonderful to be treated as a fool yet again. “Did I ask for your help?” he snaps.

She straightens smoothly. “No.” She looks again to the back room door. “Where’s the room you mentioned?”

He slumps, moving forwards in his seat until his head’s nearly touching the countertop. He has the dreadful, quietly deadly beginnings of a headache; he wonders if the cool wood against his skin might help to relieve the pain. “Give me a second.” He stands reluctantly, too slowly – tiredness is making him a premature old man, every one of his joints aching. “Right. Come with me.”

There’s something creeping up on him, and it becomes more apparent with every step what it is: guilt. That frustrates him; he shouldn’t be guilty. It’s not as if talking to her abruptly is a new thing, and neither is it as if she’s been treating him any better. Even so, as he walks upstairs and listens to the soft, regular footsteps barely a moment behind his own, he thinks that snapping at her as he did might have been more than a little rash. Perhaps, though it was an odd, awkward thing, hers was a genuine offer of help. He shrugs without realising it, then becomes aware of the fact that he hasn’t actually said anything – it makes him feel even more awkward than he already did. At this rate, he’s surprised that’s even possible. It’s not as if it matters now; it feels as if it’s too late to say anything by this point, and if he tries it’ll be a show of awkwardness that will just make her look down on him further. He can’t afford to give the thought any further consideration – it’s doing nothing for his nerves – yet…

“I’m sorry,” he says into the silent corridor. “What I said earlier – I shouldn’t have, and it was unfair.”

“What did you say?” The rhythm of her steps doesn’t even stutter, the question a smooth, barely inflected one.

“I said I was sorry,” he blurts, not exactly in a hurry to repeat it.

“No. What are you apologising for?”

“Rather rashly, I declared that I didn’t need your help, and in retrospect, that might have been an unfortunate mistake.”

“Why are you waving your hands around?”

“Wha – ?” He pauses, looks down and realises that he is. He’s always talked with his hands, and it’s a habit that tends to intensify when he gets nervous. “Oh. Er. I do that.”

“I’ve noticed.” He might be wrong, but he can hear a trace of what might be amusement in her tone. It’s subtle and it’s bone dry, but if he’s not very much mistaken, it’s there. (He’s unsure whether that should annoy him or reassure him that she isn’t hurt. That said, she never is – anything he says only seems to slide off her without leaving a mark. Water, duck, back, all that, he supposes. However, that doesn’t stop it from being frequently disconcerting.) He’s just making the comfortably familiar decision of settling for annoyance when she says, “Thank you.”

“For – ?”

“The apology. It’s not like it really matters, but it’ll make carrying out my mission a lot easier if our relationship isn’t actively antagonistic.”

The hypocrisy of that strikes him then, and he’s unable to let that pass without saying, “You might want to remind yourself of that occasionally.”

“You may be right,” is her mild response.

There is one spare room. The desk’s a little dusty – no-one’s had to use it for a long time – but the bed is fine. Like the back room, it’s full of darkwood, but in a way that’s luxurious rather than oppressive; the high ceilings work to balance that, to overcome any potential sense of claustrophobia.This is an old building, but a well-designed one. A chest of drawers and a full-body mirror rest in the corner. The one window is large and tall, with long, dark purple curtains, and the bedclothes are the same colour. It’s the sort of place made for warming yourself by a fire on long winter nights. (There is actually a fireplace, but no-one’s ever got round to lighting it.) It’s not a particularly large room, but neither is it small enough to be boxy. It’s somewhere in the middle; as Goldilocks would say, just right. It’s a good room – probably better than his own, Adrian begrudgingly admits, even though he prefers his – his has more of a personality. More books, too, and that’s the important thing.

Angela looks round and then gives a nod of approval. “This is more than adequate. Thank you.”

“It’s not a problem.” That’s a lie, but neither of them have got into an argument yet and he wants to keep it that way, if possible. Besides, it seems somehow like the right thing to say.

She turns to him. “I won’t be here long.” It’s an assurance, her eyes and her tone of voice perfectly sincere. “Once this is over, you’ll have the room back.” There are many things carried in those sentences, things she isn’t saying. We won’t bother each other any more. I’ll be out of here as soon as possible. Remembering the kind of things she was saying in the pub, those things don’t surprise him.

He shifts awkwardly, not wanting to hover but uncertain whether he should go quite yet. “Do you need any help? Is there anything else I should do?”

She walks to the bed, placing the suitcase upon the covers and opening it. “I’m fine.”

“Right. Well. If there’s a problem or you need me at all, just call me.”

“That will be unlikely.”

“Believe me, I’m well aware. However, if the need does arise, I would like to be alerted before, you know, the apocalypse descends or I’m murdered in my sleep.” The curious young boy he’s done his best to bury – the one that would be awestruck, enthralled, because there are angels, angels are real, and he must know everything, all of it, right now – makes him ask, “Do you even sleep? Do you need to?”

She’s still looking through the suitcase, and she doesn’t turn at his question. However, she does answer it. “It’s not essential, but it is recommended when we’re in a human body. We don’t get tired in the same way that humans do, but there are symptoms of sleep deprivation for us as well.”

He nods and then feels like a fool. She can’t even see him. “I see.” He doesn’t, not really – she never seems to make an effort to clarify anything, and while it used to be intriguing, it’s now just frustrating. If he’s intrigued, he’s intrigued by the chance to discover more later. Now he knows that those answers will never come, intrigue has no room to grow, quashed instead by annoyance. Into the quiet of the room, he asks, “What you said, about, about seeing my soul?”

“That was true. We can see every human soul.”

He grits his teeth. “And the comment about my spine?” It comes out harsher than he intended it to.

She keeps on sorting through the case, and he has an absurd moment of wondering whether angels need to brush their teeth. She doesn’t speak, and after several seconds have passed, she still hasn’t. “Good night, Adrian,” she says eventually. It’s a very firm ending of the discussion.

He stands by the door, every muscle in his body tense and poised for a confrontation, and honestly considers starting a fight – but truthfully, he’s tired. His eyelids are growing heavy, and playing these kinds of word games is utterly exhausting. Besides, if he goes to sleep, he won’t have to deal with her for any longer – or he can at least postpone it until the morning, when he’s had some sleep and got some caffeine in him. “Good night, Angela.”

He heads to the door. The moment before he shuts it behind him, he feels a prickling at the back of his neck, and knows that her eyes are on him, watching him steadily. Then it’s shut, and the feeling’s gone. He shakes his head, stifling a yawn and heading to his room. He’s relieved at the thought of this day being over.

Light As Air: Part Ten

Now Angela eventually has returned, she’s come bearing a suitcase.

He’s all too aware of the fact that Olivia’s behind him, having followed him into the room, and he wonders how on earth he’s meant to explain himself. Or, well, the case.

He turns to his sister and says, “This is… this is a complex order. I think I’ll need to speak to her for a while, so could you take the shop?”

“Sure,” Olivia says. She glances down, seeming to realise at the same time everyone else does that she’s still holding a slice of bread. “I’ll just…” She gestures back to the kitchen, the rest of her soon following the gesture.

When he turns back to Angela, he pointedly looks at the suitcase, not at her. Well, truthfully, it’s probably less of a look and more of a glare. “We need to talk.” When she nods, he shuts the door to the back room. The shop isn’t exactly private from the public, but they’ve had few enough customers that he’s certain they’ll get a few minutes to themselves.

“We had an agreement,” she says, as if that’s any sort of explanation or excuse.

“No. Like you always seem to do, you gave me an order and expected me to follow it. Any kind of agreement there was all presumed, and believe me, it was all on your end.”

“I have no choice,” is her irritable retort.

“Of course you have a bloody choice! You could go to a bloody Travelodge! I mean, honestly, I can’t say it’s as if the forces of Heaven would really care, would they? This is London, I’m sure there are some very good deals on nearby hotels, God knows it’ll be easy enough to find a Premier Inn or something if you put your mind to it…”

“I’m staying here,” she says, far too firmly and confidently for his peace of mind.

“No, you’re bloody not! Not after last night’s performance, I assure you. And it’s not even as if you know I have somewhere to put you. You might be stuck sleeping on the sofa, and well, Your Majesty, somehow I doubt you’d take very kindly to that – “

He’s surprised by how quiet her voice is as she says, “A sofa would be perfectly adequate.”

That halts him, even though he doesn’t want it to. “What?”

“Anything that would allow me to carry out my mission is enough. We’re trained to withstand inclement conditions and battlegrounds. This is hardly a trial.”

“Well, I’m sure you can survive anywhere, then, including the sofa or my spare room – Shit.”

“I knew.” She sighs.

“You knew?”

“I could read quite clearly that you were lying. We can with humans anyway, but you are an unimpressive liar.”

Right now, he wants her to be anywhere but here. Heaven. Shropshire, which according to some is the next best thing. Anywhere but standing in the shop with her practical, dark brown suitcase and staring him down. He certainly doesn’t want her getting into his only spare room. Just the thought of explaining it all is starting to give him a headache. “Why the hell should I let you stay here?”

“You say that as if you have a choice.”

He shrugs. “So I don’t. Fine. But if you stay here, we keep out of each other’s way. I don’t need you bothering customers while you’re here, or bothering me.”

With a shrug of her own, she simply responds, “Understandable.”

Well, that’s one word for it. As she often does, she’s taken the wind out of his sails. He sighs, wanting to sit down but realising that he’s not behind the counter – sometime during all this, he’s stepped forward, tried to get in her face and make demands. It’s nothing different from what she’s been doing, but he still doesn’t like it. He makes a conscious effort to take a step backwards, to loosen his muscles and to stop looking like he’s dying for a fight. Something occurs to him, and he wonders how to phrase it. “Look,” he tries eventually, “you might not want to do the Godvoice, or the glaring thing, so much while you’re here.”

She raises an eyebrow. “’The Godvoice’?”

He shrugs. “The whole” – he lowers his voice an octave or two, knowing it sounds nothing like what she subjected him to; just the memory of that makes his legs turn to jelly all over again – “obey, tiny human trick. It can be rather… disconcerting, if you catch my drift.”

She raises an eyebrow. “It is a last resort.”

“Even so…”

“And in no way do I glare.”

He clears his throat, tilts his head to one side and tries his best to look at her like he’s planning her murder. He doesn’t quite manage it – it’s probably closer to “slightly confused zombie” than “angry Angela” – but it’s certainly a valiant attempt.

“That’s far from accurate.”

“I don’t care. You obviously understand what I mean.”

She stands steadfast, crossing her arms as if to ground herself further. “And why, exactly, should I take orders from you?”

“It wasn’t an order. I think you’ll find it was a request. The way that I see it, people have already convinced themselves that Scholars can summon things. They think we’re all…” He waves his hands about in a stupid, half-hearted look at me, I’m enchanting things kind of way. “…meddling with ‘unseen forces and communing with the devil. Whatever nonsense is in vogue this year.” He sighs. “If people find out that I have an angel in my bookshop, things could get difficult for both of us. Not just me – I mean, I’m sure there’s some way you could extricate yourself from that sort of mess, but, well, I doubt you really want the attention.”

She, too, seems to disengage. There’s no fight in her when she nods and says, “I understand. Thanks for warning me.”

Adrian is certain he must have misheard. Was that a thank you? From Angela?

With a nod of his own, he says stiffly, “Right.” He looks back to the door. “Look, if you’re going to stay, I need to get them out of here. I’m not up for all the questions and the, well, the interrogation.”

“You don’t need to yet.” At his questioning look, she elaborates, “I have some business to attend to. I’ll return later today. May I leave this here?” She lifts the case.

“I suppose so.”

“Thank you.” She walks past him, putting it down next to the counter, and then walks out of the shop with no further ado – not even a word. Typical. He’s left staring in the wake of her, wondering what the hell to do.

Light As Air: Part Nine

If you ever grow a spine.

It’s not like it isn’t true. Even so, it bothers him.Hearing it from someone else, rather than in his own head… It’s different. Crushingly different, in fact. He’s sorting out stock, opening cardboard boxes. He doesn’t mistreat books – it’s a personal peeve of his when people do – but he’s wielding the parcel knife perhaps a little more forcefully than necessary today. He’s minding the covers, but the boxes are absolute toast.

The bell above the door rings. Ah. His first customer of the day. He surreptitiously checks the clock: it’s just gone 9.30.

A bloke is striding through the door, smiling cheerily, and he looks like a scholarly type. No, not a Scholarly type – just your garden variety student. He’s wearing a long, striped scarf, and his glasses are round and half the size of his face, with heavy, black rims. He also has that sleep-deprived, not quite post-puberty look that just screams uni student. It makes Adrian think of that group in the pub and the feelings seeing them brought him. No. Not right now.

The bloke walks up to the counter. “Hello?”

Adrian realises that he’s crouching on the floor a few feet away from the counter, i.e., essentially invisible.

He pops up, steps to stand behind the counter, and the guy jumps a little. “Hi,” he says with his best serving-the-customers smile.

To his credit, the newest customer makes a very quick recovery. He assumes a cheerful demeanour and says, “I hear this is a good place for Scholar lore.”

“That it is.” He heads over to a bookcase in the corner of the room, and he hears the smallest intake of breath. Oh. When he glances back, the man’s eyes are on his jeans pocket; that’s where the watch is, seeing as he’s foregone the waistcoat today. He wonders whether to acknowledge it, or whether that’ll make things awkward. Very likely awkwardness will ensue, so he looks back to the books. On top of the bookcase, he knows, is a fairly self-explanatory cardboard sign that reads Scholars/Mages.“How complex are we talking? Are we talking about Scholar history, or magehood in this century, or…?”

“Activism,” the man says. He’s come to stand next to Adrian, and his eyes are flickering curiously over the spines of the book. He grinds his teeth a little at that; any thought of spines bothers him at the moment. “Mainly the movement, the rest of it. I’m… uh, I’m doing my degree on Scholar history. But this aspect of it, it’s – new to me.” He talks with his hands, like Olivia does; his hands move minutely with every word, his fingers seeming to fidget along with the rest of him, and he gestures to the bookcase every now and again. Adrian hasn’t actually met a scholar of Scholars – hah – because there aren’t many people who study it. Most people know the basics, and they view looking into it further as a waste of time, a soft subject.

“Sure.” Adrian knows what shelf it’s on, but it takes him a second to place it. He slides it out, listening to the gentle hiss of cover against cover. “Try this.” Magehood: Rights, Reasons and Relations. Revised edition, reprinted for its twentieth anniversary. “It’s usually a good starting point.”

“Thanks.” He does seem genuinely grateful, and he takes it gently, flicks through the pages with visible interest. “How much?”

“7.99.” Adrian cocks his head, thinks about it for a second or two. “Though we haven’t exactly had many takers, so I’d be willing to give it to you for six quid.”

The guy lights up. “Six is good. Yeah, I’d be willing to pay six.”

“Great.” Adrian turns to walk back to the counter, and the student trails after him, slow and absentminded, his nose still in the book. He stops, holds his hand out for payment.

The customer looks up from his book and startles, the hint of a blush growing in his cheeks. “Right. Sorry.” He places the book on the counter and then digs around in his pockets, bringing out money and attempting to sort it. He dumps a fiver and a pound coin in front of Adrian; the coin clatters as it falls onto the countertop, spinning a little before it falls. “Here you go,” he says, rather redundantly, in Adrian’s opinion; it’s not as if the handover was subtle enough to be missed by anyone within about twenty feet. Even though the noise makes him wince involuntarily, Adrian can’t begrudge him for it – we’ve all had those kind of days, Adrian especially.

Adrian smiles. ”Thanks. Bag?” At the man’s nod, he wraps the heavy book in a carrier bag – it’s nearly as much of a brick as Angela’s – and hand it over.

“Thank you.” He turns to head out of the shop.

“Have a nice day!” Adrian calls to his retreating back.

He sighs, slumping into his chair and leaning an elbow on the counter. It’s going to be a long day. He realises his elbow’s knocked something. A book. He reaches for it, sliding it back towards him, and grins when he sees what it is. Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas. He’d forgotten – he must have left it here yesterday, before Angela ambushed him. He picks it up and quickly finds the page where he left off, beginning to read.

Sweat glistened on Aurileyna’s golden skin. Hours in the scorching desert had begun to take their toll on her, and she was feeling light-headed. In her exhaustion, she panted for breath, her round, plentiful, perfectly-sized bosom heaving. The fur of her bikini was her only refuge fsrom the hot red sun, and even that soon wouldn’t be enough – her skin had only developed a glowing, even tan so far, but would soon burn if it was exposed to the sun any longer. She was just considering finding some shelter when an earth-shaking roar sounded from somewhere close behind her.

She whipped round, her chest bouncing with the motion, and had only a moment to wonder how a tyrannosaurus rex could possibly wield a pair of nunchuks with such tiny claws before she began once again to run for her life.

“Adrian.”

It seems that he won’t be allowed even a moment’s peace. He reluctantly removes himself from the book, trying to seem politely interested but instead suspecting that he’s probably glaring.”Paul.”

“Did you get your buyer to pay for the book?”

He’s been dreading this conversation. “She’s promised to return in a few days.”

Paul raises a disbelieving eyebrow, and it’s not a question when he says it: “Has she.”

“I promise.”

Paul shakes his head. “I just don’t understand what you’re doing. You’ve got your head screwed on right, so I just can’t understand why you’d put through an order that big on a promise that vague.” He leans on his tiptoes to look past Adrian, at the door to the back room. “Do you have any Earl Grey?”

Adrian tuts. “Of course I do. I’m not sure what you were expecting. Just keep an eye on the shop.”

With a nod and a crack of his knuckles, Paul takes Adrian’s place behind the counter while he heads through the door.

When he returns, Paul has a fag on the go and is absentmindedly browsing Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas.

“This is excellent,” he says. “Where’d you find it?”

“It was a birthday present.” He tacks on an explanatory, “Olivia.” He places a mug in front of him. “And put that out. You’re in a room with a lot of very flammable paper. And, well, a very irritable me.” He grew out of his childhood asthma, but he’s never quite forgotten the effect cigarette smoke used to have on him. He still finds himself on edge whenever someone lights up in an enclosed place. Besides, he lives here and Paul doesn’t, even though Paul owns the place, and it’s rude to do it without at least asking first. They’ve had this conversation far too many times before.

“Can I use the back yard?”

Adrian shrugs. “Certainly. Whatever lets you get your fix. Just not in here, alright?”

With a recalcitrant shrug of his own, Paul tucks the book under his arm and grabs the mug, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The cheap ciggy and the pulp paperback are a sharp contrast with his work shirt and trousers. He walks through, trailing smoke with him. Adrian waits until he’s out of eyesight to start swiping at the air, opening a window to let some of it out. Phew.

The bell above the door rings.

He resists the urge to snap, What?! When he turns round, he sees Olivia. “Oh, of course,” he sighs. “Of course this isn’t a private party, feel free to come and join us…”

“Us?”

“Paul’s in the back. Smoking. And stealing my bloody book.”

She puts her hands on her hips. Frowns. Tilts her head to one side and squints at him. Squints some more. “You know, you’ve got a face like a kicked arse.”

Now he does glare at her. “Thanks.”

“No, I mean right now. Something’s really obviously getting on your wick. What is it?”

What happened with the pub and with Angela – it’s too hard to explain. Besides, mentioning things like souls? He’ll sound like even more of a nutter, if that’s possible. He shakes his head, looking pointedly towards the back room door. “Paul was smoking in here again.”

Olivia’s irritation joins his. She glares towards the door, as if her gaze can penetrate three walls and skewer Paul. Who knows? Perhaps it can – it is truly exceptional. Adrian’s been on the receiving end of it enough times. “I told him. I told him that if he did it again I’d take those cigarettes and shove them up his – “

“Yes. Thank you.”

She darts twitchy glances around the room. “I’ll go out there and do it in a minute, but are you sure that that’s all it is?” Her eyes skewer him this time instead.

He debates with himself about it, considers lying. A half-lie, maybe – that might be better than nothing. If he uses that, he might be able to sound slightly less insane. “My buyer… She came back.”

Olivia’s eyebrows raise. “The angel?”

“No,” he lies. “Well yes, the buyer. But no, not an angel. I think you were right. Some sleep helped. But she was still impressively demanding.”

He can actually see her resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “Of course she was.”

He shrugs, raising a hand to rub the back of his neck. “In all frankness, I can’t say it went well.”

“How ‘not well’ did it go? Did she pay you?”

He wants very much to say yes, but he knows that she’ll soon go into the back yard and talk to Paul, who’ll start one of his rants on the subject. He’ll be caught out. “No,” he sighs.

The disbelief and the glare return in full force. “I can’t believe you let her do that.”

“She’s coming back,” he protests, backing away a step or two.

“Did she say when, or will she just randomly turn up and upset you again?”

He looks towards the back room door, praying for Paul to come in and save him. Actually, scratch that – Paul would probably just join in. “Turn up, probably. Hopefully not, but who knows?”

“Right.” She sighs, her shoulders slumping, and then looks towards the back room door. “Is he still out there?” When Adrian nods, she heads through to the back yard.

He lasts an hour until, with no customers and no sign of any more coming, he decides to take an early lunch break. When he heads out there, he finds Paul still buried in Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas with another fag on the go. Olivia is next to him, seemingly reading the little labels on the flowerbeds. It all seem strangely harmonious – all is quiet, and no-one is threatening actual bodily harm. Adrian can’t help but be a little suspicious.

“So,” he begins.

Paul jumps. Olivia doesn’t. She probably knew he was coming from the moment he stood up behind the counter.

“So,” she returns.

“Is there any particular reason you’re here?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. I just thought I’d stop by, and I… never quite left?” With a sigh, she asks, “Have you got any bread?”

He gestures into the kitchen and then heads back in. Paul hasn’t even stirred. Olivia follows him in and begins looking through cupboards.

He has his head in the fridge, seriously considering what can be done with one block of gouda, no butter and a cucumber, when he hears the shop bell ring. A few seconds later, Olivia nudges him. “There’s a woman here. And she’s asking for you by name.”

Oh, bollocks.

Light As Air: Part Eight

serialisedbannerA week and a half. A week and a half of observation, poking and prodding, various tests… Nothing. They’ve found nothing, and they told Guin that with shifty eyes and the hint of a grimace. Great. She heard the word TBI muttered a lot in questioning tones, and when she got access to a computer, she looked it up: traumatic brain injury. Wonderful. That was just what she needed to hear. But apparently that isn’t her affliction – or so she was told, when she asked them to their faces in a sudden burst of anger. Something about being cooped up in a hospital ward for so long had got to her, and she found herself snapping the question at one of the nurses, who looked panicked and then went to fetch the doctors.

She apologised afterwards. She isn’t the sort of person who wouldn’t. Still, she was left with some new information: there was no damage. No damage whatsoever. No tissue damage, no kind of bleed, no degradation. In theory, according to her MRI, she’s absolutely fine, even though an entire year has somehow been scrubbed from her memory. That’s a relief, but it’s also immensely frustrating, for the medical team as well as her – there was only so long they could keep running in circles and asking the same questions before they admitted that they had no idea what the hell had happened. Since she was technically in perfect health, she was discharged, even if they were reluctant about it.

She’s taken two buses to get here; for some reason, she still seems to know the route by heart. Now she’s standing outside the block of flats where she lives, slowly breathing in and out, in and out. She stands in its shadow; it looms over her, tall and grey, watchful. There are memories here. The whole place has the ache of familiarity about it. Just the grass outside makes her think of a hundred journeys like this, of climbing what are always too many stairs, of putting her key in the lock. She knows this place. Grotty and underwhelming as it is, it’s hers. Maybe she can remember because she moved here before The Year That Wasn’t, as she’s taken to calling it in her head. She nervously twists the ring on her finger. She’s kept wearing it. She doesn’t quite know why.

She enters the building, unsure why her stomach’s attempting to climb into her throat and her hand is shaking as she grips her key. Perhaps something terrible has happened to that place in her forgotten year. Perhaps that’s part of what caused the memory loss. Perhaps – even worse – she won’t remember anything once she gets inside. The climb up the stairs is even harder and less pleasant now that she’s been in hospital for a while – she grits her teeth, almost thinking that she can feel the muscle wastage. She gets into her corridor and arrives at a plain brown door with 5C on it in metal letters.
She’s about to enter her flat when a flash of light blue catches her eye. A T-shirt, she realises as she looks properly at its source.

A man is locking the door to flat 5A. He has his back to her, but she can tell a lot just by looking at him. He’s lean, but he’s probably in good shape. He’s also likely fairly young: he’s dark haired, and it’s arranged in that carefully tousled style that seems to be popular right now – personally, she thinks it could do with a little less gel, but that’s just her opinion. A pair of scuffed black converse catch her eye as he shifts impatiently, trying to put his key into his pocket-one-handed. There’s a slightly dented cardboard box under his arm. It’s heavy and pretty unwieldy, judging from the slump of his shoulders and the way his whole posture changes when he tries to move it.

He turns, and not quite, but very nearly, jumps when he spots her. A few expressions flit across his face – surprise, and something akin to sadness – before he schools it into polite cheerfulness. He smiles at her. It’s a good smile, she thinks, all white teeth and eye-crinkles, sweet and infectious. “Hi.” Then he ducks his head, and it becomes more of a sheepish grin than anything.

She makes to greet him, but something she can’t name makes her hesitate. A wave of familiarity hits her, one so intense she struggles not to stop and stare. She knows this man. She’s certain of it. Yet, hard as she tries, she can’t put a name to the face, can’t quite say where she knows him from. He must be someone from the past year, then – a year that doesn’t exist, according to her memories.

She can now see that the words K – Junk are written on the front of the box. It adds to her feeling of not-quite-there. She knows him, goddammit, she feels it, and that letter, that K, means something to her. She understands instinctively that she should know what it is, but she can’t quite… An initial? A room designation?

“Hi,” she says in return. Only a few seconds have passed, yet they feel like an eternity; long enough to make things awkward, anyway.

“I’m, uh… I’m in 5A.” He shifts the box under his arm again, sticking out a hand.

“I know,” she replies with a nervous laugh, but shakes his hand anyway.

She sees it dawn on him – she must have seen him at his door. “Oh.” He hefts the box until he’s carrying it properly, with both hands. “Daniel,” he says, after a moment. He has a hint of somewhere else in his accent, but he can’t quite name it; it definitely isn’t all British. She just can’t name it, and that, too, frustrates her.

“Guin,” she returns.

The thing is, she’s sure she should remember him. He has a face most people would remember. He’s handsome, in a sharp-cheekboned, startlingly blue-eyed way, even though he looks tired; he’s pale, with dark shadows under his eyes and a day or two’s worth of stubble. “Good name,” he says. “What’s it short for?”

“Guinevere,” she admits reluctantly, looking at the floor. It’s never been a subtle name; it’s the kind that either proves to be the making of you, or an albatross round your neck. Either way, nearly everyone remembers you, for good or for bad.

She half-expects a laugh or a joke about whether she’s “found her Arthur” yet, but instead he just says, “It’s nice. Is there a reason you shortened it?”

She shrugs. “Too memorable.” He nods, as if in understanding, and she asks, “What’s with the…?” She gestures to the box.

It’s his turn to shrug, and he offers her a slightly sad half-smile. “I’m trying to move all my stuff to my car. I’ve been doing it little by little, but I’m still not finished.”

“You must not have much stuff, then. Or a truly impressive car.” She cringes. Smooth, Guin; state the painfully obvious.

“I’ve only been in the flat a year,” he says, “and I’m not really… materialistic, I suppose.” A shrug, and a little awkwardness. His smile hasn’t fallen, though; she obviously hasn’t bothered him too much. It explains, at least, why she doesn’t really remember him; he wasn’t around much before the obliterated year.

“When are you moving?”

“In a week. I just want to get all my stuff out in advance.” He must know how odd that sounds, because he adds, “It’s a long story.”

That should be it; she should go on, should go into her flat. The polite little conversation a couple of neighbours would have is concluded. Yet for some reason, she pauses, not yet ready to let him go. That crushing feeling of familiarity is still there, refusing to recede, and the frustration of not quite knowing is getting to her. “I’m sorry… have we met?”

He stares down at his cardboard box for a moment, then at her, cocking his head and squinting. “I think we have briefly,” he tells her. “Guess I don’t make much of an impression.”

She winces, raising a hand to her temple. “I’m sorry, I’m – I’m recovering from a head injury…” She isn’t, not as such, but somehow that’s easier than saying, I woke up from a hit-and-run with a year of my memory gone and even my doctors don’t know why.

“Oh,” he says, suddenly looking very apologetic. His grip on the box slips slightly. “I’m really sorry, I…”

“Never mind,” she says. “Are there any more boxes you need help with?” She wonders why she’s offering; the impulse came out of nowhere.

Another of those bright, infectious smiles. “I’m good, but thanks.”

She takes that as the dismissal it is and nods, turning and unlocking the door to her flat. She hears his footsteps, and then she feels him walk past – there’s a sudden spike in her awareness, almost like a breeze, then it’s gone as soon as it came. She feels his eyes on her, as though he’s looked over his shoulder, then his footsteps start descending the stairs and fade out of hearing.

She shuts the door behind her and stands in her apartment, looking around. It’s familiar as ever – it’s changed little in the year that she lost – but it’s still not quite right. The hollowness in her chest has been with her since the hospital bed, and time and time again, it’s been ordering her to go home. Yet here she is, and still that feeling nags at her. With it is the new, frustratingly unfulfilled sense of familiarity caused by seeing Daniel. She wonders if it will be like that with everyone she meets, and if so, she wonders how the hell she’ll bear it.

She looks to her side, and comes face to face with a pair of blank grey eyes. She jumps, but they’re small, certainly not human-sized, and she realises that it’s just Huginn, the stone raven that acts as a bookend. He stands on the bookshelf by the door, regarding her unseeingly. She smiles, running a hand over his head, and then looks for his companion.

Muninn is missing. A few books have tipped over, leaning drunkenly. A few are on the floor. Annoyance flares within her. Did she do this, or was it some other inconsiderate bastard? She crouches to take a look round the shelf, but Munnin is nowhere to be found. She lets out a laugh that sounds unhinged even to her own ears. Of course. The raven of Thought is still here, but Memory is missing. This must be some kind of metaphor. Jesus Christ, her life is turning into an awful novel.

Light As Air: Part Seven

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Olivia steps out of the shower and considers what to do next. It’s four in the afternoon; there isn’t exactly much day to fill. She’s had her run, and and her head is slightly clearer. Something about working out, about getting the blood pumping always makes her feel better, letting her think when her head is too crowded, full to the brim with noise. That seems to be happening more and more these days.

She heads into her room, hunting for clean clothes that she can throw together. After dragging them all on and studiously ignoring the picture on her bedside table, she checks through her phone and sees that she has no new messages. Great.

It’s not exactly a surprise, she admits; her life seems to be growing ever quieter these days, ever since the whole business last year. Once again, her eyes try to drift to the photograph, but she doesn’t allow it. Not today. On good days, it’s still hopeful – it reminds her of what she can do when she’s in the proper place, makes her think of the best time of her life. On bad days, it’s a monument to her failure, a reminder that the best days of her life also became some of the worst.

Today is neither a good day nor a bad day, but that picture is too often the deciding factor. Today she’ll try and make the decision herself.

She sighs. As she’s been fiddling with her phone, she’s somehow wandered into her contacts list. She’s still has Mum’s number saved, and she‘s not entirely sure why. Probably in case an emergency happens with Adrian, but he’s fine. He’s always fine, these days. It’s weird, considering she was the practical one and he always seemed to have his head either in the clouds or somewhere up his own arse, that she seems to be the one having trouble getting on in life. Much as Mum said otherwise after Olivia refused to take over the family business, she always thought the same.

But of course, these days Adrian can do no wrong. Even after he officially became a dropout from Cambridge, the place he’d worked so hard to get into and one of the most expensive universities in Britain, Mum was perfectly understanding. It’s not that he didn’t have good reasons; he did. It’s just that Olivia seems to offend her mother simply by existing.

She contemplates taking another run, or lifting weights, but her head isn’t clearing and right now, much as it usually helps, it feels like occupying her body will only make things worse. It’s Sunday afternoon and the house isn’t holding any sort of entertaining distractions, so she decides. Pub.

The Horn and Sword is a reasonable-sized place, not too big but not pokey either. She and Adrian are regulars, and the bartender knows them both. It seems like a fairly good idea. She puts on her jacket and heads out.

When she goes through the door, Nick greets her with a wide smile. It bothers her. He’s far too cheerful. It isn’t the smile of a man wishing you a nice day, it’s the smile of a man with blackmail material. He’s cleaning glasses, placing them all carefully back under the bar, one by one. It feels almost like watching some kind of ritual. “Your brother’s a lucky man,” he says.

What? She frowns, letting out a puzzled laugh. “Honestly, I could call him a lot of things, but that’s not the first word that comes to mind.”

“Even with a woman like that?” He gives a low whistle. She’s annoyed by that; Nick talks about the woman in question like she’s a prize, something Adrian got through good behaviour, or good luck, or skill. Something to be polished and admired occasionally, maybe boasted about, but with no mind of its own.

Wait, a woman?

“She really was gorgeous, as well. They were in here on Friday. There was a bit of, well, an argument with a bloke insulting Scholars, but other than that it all seemed very cosy.”

She decides to bluff it. “Oh yeah, he mentioned her. The tall one?” At Nick’s nod, she says, “Yeah, it seems to be going well. The usual, please.” She’s not about to pry; she admits, she’s hurt that he didn’t mention it, but it’s none of her business. She’ll wait until he brings it up, if he ever does. Adrian, for all he’s sarky enough most of the time, is very close-mouthed when he wants to be.

“It’s weird,” Nick muses. “I admit, didn’t think ‘e swung that way.”

She frowns. “What gave you that impression?”

She pays for the Guinness, grabs a newspaper off the corner of the bartop and heads to a table, not wanting to try and make awkward small talk with Nick for half an hour. She has nothing against the bloke, but she’s half-asleep and, she admits in the privacy of her own head, maybe a little upset.

She opens the paper and tries her best not to wince. As usual, everything seems to be awful and everyone is miserable. Great. Wonderful.

Fire destroys local industrial unit, a small headline on page five reads. She only knows how tightly she’s gripping the newspaper when it starts to crease up. She scans the column quickly, looking for the details in the excess words. No deaths, thank God. A couple of minor injuries. Firefighters arrived quickly at the scene.

She smiles, but she folds the paper in half and puts it aside. That’s enough for one day. She sips her Guinness and tries not to think too much, watching the sun begin to slip under the horizon.