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?
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.
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 a victory, even if she’ll probably have to do this all again in a few days anyway.
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!”
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.
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.
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.