A Dark and Stormy Night: WIP Previews

At the moment, I’m working on some not-particularly-short short stories. Beginnings of upcoming stuff:

velocity

I guess things really went to shit when I got the powers. I mean, my life wasn’t brilliant or anything, but it was… you know, normal. Get up, brush your teeth, get some water on and scrub stuff, go and work in Burger Buddy and get yelled at, pretend you’re not sleepwalking. So on. I’d stand at the counter and think, huh, maybe there are better things I could be doing with my Physics A level, but it wasn’t fair to take that out on the customers, so I’d paste on a smile and ask if they wanted fries with that. Or gherkins. One time a bloke asked for asparagus on his cheeseburger. I told him that sadly, we didn’t have any handy, but it goes to show that you never can tell with people.

So anyway, it was a velocity kind of day. Wait – I guess that needs explaining. Some days things are slow and I get bored, so I start trying to work out the velocity and force of a flipped burger. I try to do it subtly, though – Stacey’s usually on the grill and she’d think it was a bit creepy if I was staring vacantly at her and not-quite-muttering.

So, it was a velocity kind of day. And I’m wondering if the added mass of a cheese slice would make a burger go faster, or whether it would make it less aerodynamic. While I’m struggling to answer that profound question, something comes up on the news. Something about a leak of some chemical that may or may not be a mutagen. Generally I like to keep half an eye on the science and technology stuff, but I’d gotten absentminded and managed to nearly lean on the grill. I was wondering what that smell was and hoping it wasn’t my frying palm, while Stacey grunted something about plasters and elbowed me out of the way to go through the tool draws. I stared at the neat red lines on my hand and thought that this was probably against some kind of health and safety law.

Looking back on it, I really, really should’ve paid attention to the news.

I saw it and then I dismissed it, just let it float out of my head. I think people do most of the time. There were days I used to watch the news and my hands would be white-knuckled on my knees because there had to be something I could do, but there never was. Least, it seemed that way.

You’ve got to let it go or you just get weighed down by how crap the world can be, you know? Anyhow, I was a little busy nursing my stinging palm and thanking all that was holy I was left-handed. The rest of my shift went by pretty quickly, so I said bye to Stacey and headed out. It was a miserable night, with that kind of wet, cold rain that rattles your teeth and always seems to get down your shirt, no matter how many layers you’re wearing. I thought maybe it’d help cool the burn, but it didn’t, so I shoved my hands in my pockets and started to shuffle home.

And then I heard the squeal of tyres.

I looked up and saw headlights. Rapidly approaching ones, seeming to grow brighter as they sped towards me. And I had two thoughts: Mum and oh, fuck.

Didn’t think much after that. The world went black, then the world was gone.


when the fog rolls in

It’s when the fog rolls in, they’d told Jas. That’s when things get dangerous.

She’d figured they were exaggerating; it was only a nice little place with a few hills, maybe a bit of rain, right? She should’ve remembered that Northerners were more prone to understatement than hyperbole – she was from Wigan, after all.

And then the fog rolled in, and she thought, Oh. Oh, no.

It was fast. There was a little bit of mist maybe over the hill, and then within half an hour, everything was a sea of white. It crawled up slowly – starting in the fields beside her, then behind her, and then she could barely see a thing. She’d got visibility of maybe three feet in front of her, but the rest… well. She couldn’t see tree roots, so trees hung, skeletal in the white. She’d think she saw shadows of hills, but then she’d realise her mind was tricking her and they were just little rises in the land, dips and bumps.

To make things even better, she was now lost. Completely lost. As in, she looked around her and thought, I’m almost certain this is the fifth time I’ve circled round that rock. Tension started to crawl up her spine, making a home somewhere around the back of her neck, and she shivered. The cold was setting in, too, and a dampness seemed to worm its way under her waterproofs and stay there. She rubbed her arms and kept walking, even though the cold felt like it was stiffening her knees. She wondered how long she could keep going before that got really uncomfortable, and the thought bothered her. There were places she could get help, a bus… They might have only been a few yards away, but God, she wouldn’t be able to see it. She needed to map out the land, or… or try and get above the fog.

That was it. She needed a vantage point.


before midnight

Liam!”

He tried not to sigh, stopping the motion of his mop and turning to look at the person who’d called him. It was Cynthia, his… well. He refused to call her his stepmother. She wasn’t, really: she was just some woman that Dad had married. That didn’t make her his anything, no matter what she thought. He supposed he should be grateful; she’d lifted them out of poverty, given them a fair share of her business. It didn’t make the sting of her presence any better, though – not when she’d done her best to eliminate every trace of the woman that came before her. Just seeing her started off a hollow ache in his chest. It wasn’t quite as bad as the one left by Mum’s death, but it came close.

“Cynthia?” he said. He felt his shoulders tensing, felt the way he curled up and tried to make himself seem small. He didn’t know why, but something about her made him need to.

She didn’t like it. She’d been trying to get him to call her Mum since he was seven. Ten years later, and he’d never done it once. It just didn’t feel right, somehow. That name was for Emily and Caitlin – it wasn’t one he had a right to, and it wasn’t one he ever wanted to use. His mum was six feet under.

Cynthia was a formidable woman, tall and sharp-chinned with a face covered in precision-applied makeup. She had eyes like a hawk’s: distinctive if you liked them, scary if you didn’t. Those eyes were shrewd, calculating as they took in first him leaning on his mop, then the squeaky-clean floors. With a short nod of approval at his work, she looked back to him. “I suppose you’ve heard about the do at your school?”

He wanted to say yes. He wanted to be honest, to say that he wished he had someone to take, but being honest was dangerous around Cynthia. If she saw a weakness she wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of it.

He shrugged. “I guess so?”

Another short nod. Her eyes flittered round the room again before she said to him, “I suppose you’re not going?”

He’d been considering it, but he felt a heavy stone drop into his chest at her words. If Cynthia said something like that, he could be certain he wasn’t going. “I, er, I wasn’t planning on it.” A lie, but that tended to be the safer option, much as he wished things were different.

A smile sneaked onto her face. “Good. I needed someone to look after the cafe while Emily and Caitlin are at this…” She sighed. “…dance. God, you’re not American, I don’t know why the school are embarrassing themselves with this kind of thing. Look, your father and I needed some time to ourselves, so we’ll be heading out on the night. I trust you’ll be fine on your own?”

He nodded, feeling a little like someone had just put a foot on his chest and pushed. He was tempted to ask whether he’d get paid, but he already knew the answer. Cynthia always said “it’s not work if it’s family,” and no work meant no wages, either.

He nodded, wishing he could do something different. Wishing he could just make himself say something, stand up instead of just taking it.

She ruffled his hair, said, “Such a good boy,” and then she was gone, leaving him leaning heavily on his mop and wishing he were anyone, anyone else.

 

 

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Not to Yield – 2

Part one can be found here.


PART TWO

The silence lengthened.

“I did,” he admitted. He couldn’t help but add, “It’s… rather late, isn’t it?”

Her face was still set, betraying no emotion as she said, “I don’t intend to be long.”

He looked away at that, uncertain how to proceed. It was evident that she didn’t want to be here; there was anger in her lack of response. Moments ticked by, marked by a clock in the corridor. The sound punctuated the silence.

After what seemed far too many moments, he sighed. “It seems I’ve been quite the ungrateful wretch. I would have been eaten by some… strange reptile if not for you, and so…” He cleared his throat. “Thank you. Without you, it’s likely I wouldn’t be here. Being ungrateful.”

The smallest movement happened on her face, and he realised after a moment that she was restraining a smile. Her lips twitched once more before she replied, “I see. I’m given to understand you know my name already. Do you have one, other than ‘ungrateful wretch’?”

A reluctant smile crept to his own lips. “My mother would say not. Jonathan Blackstone.” He found himself reaching out his hand, quite to his surprise.

A nod. “Caldir Hunter.” Rather than shaking his hand, she gripped it tightly, raising it in the air between them, and then released it.

He stared at her.

She stared back, her brow furrowing. “Is that not what you do?”

“No. Is that what you do?”

With another tight nod, she responded, “Unity, strength, lack of weapons. It’s a first greeting where I come from.” She cocked her head, her curiosity apparent. “Why, what do your people do?”

He reached out his hand again. She hesitantly raised her own, clasping his, and then he proceeded to give her a reasonably firm handshake.

When it ended, she looked at him, dubious. “It seems rather… floppy.”

“The movement is intentional.”

She still seemed puzzled. “That makes little sense as a show of strength.”

“It’s not…” He sighed, trying once more. “It’s not supposed to be an obvious one. It should be subtle.”

“Dishonest.”

“Subtle.”

She sighed. “If the idea is to make an honest assessment, then it’s pointless. There are times for subtlety, and I’m uncertain whether this is one.”

“It’s polite.”

“Politeness is overly prized. And there are many ways to be polite. This one seems pointless.”

Speaking of politeness: she was still standing in the corridor, and he realised belatedly that he should have shown her in. Yet bringing a woman into his chambers… He hesitated, caught between two alternatives that were less than ideal, and eventually decided that, damn propriety, it was unkind to offer such a lukewarm reception.

“You may come in. If you’d like to,” he tried.

He saw surprise cross her face – a slight opening of the mouth, an incremental raising of the brows – and then she nodded once, shortly, as if afraid the offer would be rescinded.

He backed away from the door, and with unusually hesitant steps, Caldir followed him.

“I…” He searched for his words. “I meant to thank you for your actions in the forest.”

Another curt nod. “I would do the same for anyone else.” She inhaled ever so slightly in the silence. “But thank you. I’m glad that you” – a pause – “weren’t eaten by a dracolisk.”

Shocked by her bluntness, he stared at her. It was while he was staring that he saw her lips twitch, the corner of her mouth rising. It was the barest hint of a smile, there and then gone, easily missed. She was laughing at him, albeit subtly.

Before he could stop himself, he found that he was doing the same. “I’m…” The words deserted him, partly due to his laughter. Perhaps near-death experiences brought out an odd, macabre sense of humour in him. “I’m also glad.”

Her smile faded as she looked at her boots. “Is that all?”

About to say yes, she could go and free herself from this terribly awkward situation, he paused. “When you said that saving people was ‘what you do’… What do you do, exactly?”

She looked surprised, and appeared to struggle for an answer. “I… Did you not hear my name?”

“Caldir?” he asked, and when she shook her head, he paused, reconsidering. “Hunter?”

A nod. “Many have problems with the beasts here. Not all are so generous as the dracolisks. They attack farmsteads, villages… and we solve the problems that brings.”

Blackstone couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows and ask, “You kill them?”

She nodded. When she saw that Blackstone’s eyebrows were still high on his forehead, disbelieving, she hastened to add, “It isn’t sport.”

He recovered his composure, clearing his throat and looking at his boots. As was habitual, he had polished them to a bright, fine shine, but the mud of this place had rendered them a scraped and murky brown. He was beginning to wonder why he bothered.

“I’m sure it isn’t,” he replied, once he had rearranged his thoughts. Dragons? Hunter of dragons? It was as if he were in a snowglobe someone had shaken; he could feel the world shifting and changing around him, yet he was stuck still – he had no hope of keeping up. “Other beasts, you say? What… what kind of size are these, er beasts?”

She glanced at the ceiling, and then the walls. “Some would dwarf this house.”

At that, his eyebrows shot up so far they threatened to leave his forehead altogether. He shivered, though whether it was with fear or anticipation, he could not say. The thought of seeing such a creature, of knowing it existed… Yet she stood here, frowning at his silence, after speaking of dragons as if they were the weather, or fish stocks.

“I see,” he managed eventually. He didn’t, not entirely, and she didn’t seem to believe him either. Her eyebrows were doing a dance of their own.

Suddenly she frowned, struck with something. She nodded once, swiftly, as if receiving an order he couldn’t hear, and then said, “I should…” She bit her lip. “I’ve been here too long.”

She was turning and opening the door while he still struggled to find his words. By the time he had quite comprehended what had happened, the door had shut. He opened it again and peered down the corridor.

She cut a strange figure, striding along carpets in the lamplight, the chain and the dagger at her hip clanking with each step. It was as if a myth had walked into his world and pushed it, pulled it until it suited her. He thought perhaps that it would remain irrevocably changed.

And then she was out of sight, and the thought was gone.


Boom.

He was awoken by the sound. Something shook, and there was another bang. He sat up, wondering what on earth –

Another resonant bang, and the entire room vibrated. He needed to leave, now. He heaved himself out of bed and began dressing to the sound of another great, resonant bang and… a roar? Surely it couldn’t be –

He was just about to put on his jacket when the door burst open. A young man – he couldn’t be more than twenty – early fell into the room. Blackstone caught a glimpse of ginger hair and shining chain before the boy turned to call, “It’s him!”

Blackstone had but a moment to ponder the significance of that before a voice called from the corridor, “Understood. Get him out.”

Blackstone’s arm was grabbed. The youth by the door gave him a sharp grin and said, “Good evening. With us, please.”

Still rather dazed, Blackstone nodded and allowed the boy to push him into the corridor. A woman in similar chain – tall, dark-haired, frowning – smiled when she saw him, as if she was suppressing laughter, and then set off. He followed, half-wondering whether he hadn’t yet woken up. He was led downstairs, then through the door, and…

Golden scales. Teeth, each as large as a man. The… dragon, for that is what it was, a dragon, reared, and the earth shook. It was larger than a mansion, larger than two mansions stacked atop each other.

Blackstone looked and quailed.

A hand on his shoulder. He jumped, turning to see the dark-haired woman, who said, “Keep going.” It was firm but not unkind.

He scurried – there was no better word – onwards, his hands over his head, his knees bent. With each step the dragon took, dirt and dust rose in clouds. It dwarfed the houses of the village, and Blackstone expected to hear screams, to see villagers fleeing, but aside from the dragon, things were surprisingly quiet.

“Where is everyone?” he managed.

“Safe,” the woman replied. “We have them.” He pretended to be reassured, but she was evidently unconvinced. She sighed. “Move.”

He did. There was little alternative.

He trailed after her, dogged, still bleary from dreaming. The dragon was only feet away; several times he was forced once again to scurry, afraid the speed of his movements would attract the creature’s attention. The noise of it… He wanted to put his hands over his ears, but he couldn’t afford to miss any orders or warnings.

The woman looked over your shoulder and asked, “Were your parents miners? Or are you?”

He stared as he scrurried, uncomprehending. “I beg your – “ He cleared his throat. “I don’t understand.”

She frowned at that, and then said carefully, as if talking to a young and particularly obstinate child, “You’re Blackstone. I assumed the black stone was coal.”

Ah. “I… My ancestors may have been. It’s an old name.”

“You wear someone else’s.” She shook her head, her frown deepening and her mouth twisting. Then she was looking ahead once more.

Was now really the time? They were far enough form the dragon that it couldn’t crush them under its heel, but even so –

“My parents?” he said all at once. Her phrasing had confused him, and he’d just understood why. “Women don’t go down mines.”

She turned, and again with that look, as if she were speaking to a fool, replied, “Of course they do.”

Blackstone imagined skirts and silks stained with soot, shovels gripped in delicate hands, but he had little time to contemplate that before he realised he was being led to the woods. The place where he’d met…

It was as if she’d been summoned. Out of the woods came a large chestnut horse, and on its back, her face painted once more, metal plates clanking as she rode, her hair tamed and twisted into a knot on her head, was Caldir. She slowed as she saw them, the horse trotting up to their little group and eventually halting. She ran a hand through its mane to soothe and praise. She was wearing soft-looking leather gloves, and on her arms were what seemed to be makeshift vambraces comprised of harder leather and some sort of metal. Blackstone was beginning to realise that the first time they’d met, she hadn’t been in full armour; he hadn’t even seen half of it.

She turned her head, and there was the clack of beads. Blackstone was certain she’d added a few more since the last time they’d met. Some appeared to be made of real gold and silver; he glimpsed symbols and words inscribed on them, but there wasn’t time for a further look.

“Ginniver,” she said.

His escort straightened her spine. “Hunter.” She swallowed but was otherwise silent, expectant.

With the smallest inhale that wasn’t quite a sigh, Caldir asked, “Is the area empty?”

The dark-haired woman – Ginniver – nodded. “As far as we know.”

“Thank you.” Caldir looked past Ginniver, to where the red-haired youth lingered behind them, and her face darkened. “Bohr.”


PART THREE

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.

Status: Not dead.

(Isn’t that nice? I like not being dead.)

Anyhow, my apologies for the lack of posts recently. Between illness and jobhunting, things have been rather hectic and there’s been limited time to blog. Gratuitous GIF of me.

So, status updates:

  • Light As Air is going on hold while I edit and clean up some plot holes. Posting will resume soon.
  • Not to Yield will still be posted. It’s fairly short, but if you want your fill of “angry woman and reluctant man on an adventure,” it might suffice. A toffish Victorian explorer and an impatient dragon hunter are forced together by events and must somehow deal with it while defending a village. Cue mutual understanding and feelings.
  • Past Lives will still be posted irregularly but enthusiastically.

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.