(part 1 here) ((Trying to return to the Short Story Challenge, but I’m a day late aha;; As usual, all writing uploaded is closer to a first draft rather than a final, but I hope you enjoy all the same.))
A Fairytale (part 2)
In the winter, as flowers died and trees fell asleep, the call receded. Most children were excited for Hanukkah or Christmas, the cheers and the presents. For years now, Francis’s sole joy was relief. The leash of the changeling call went slack, and it had felt like wordless permission from his traitorous body to celebrate this time with his family, to enjoy himself for one holiday without vigilance. It was okay to relax.
This year, the call got worse.
“He’s been through so much – he’s traumatized, for God’s sakes. We need to find him a therapi—”
“And tell them what? About the fey? They would try to medicate us! And we can’t just out Francis, that way, who knows what kind of scrutiny that would put him under!”
“We could make something up. It was basically human trafficking.”
“And ask Frey to lie to them? That wouldn’t help. The stress of that would make things worse.”
“We’re not qualified to help him through this—”
“But he’s been getting better! He’s made such progr—”
“Emotionally, he’s still hurt, and—”
“We can’t send him to therapy! God, there isn’t exactly a support group for this situation! There’s no community for parents who got screwed over by faeries—”
Francis turned up his music and buried his face in his arms. The blare of brass drowned out the voices, but it did nothing against the call, which had wrapped around his heart, ribbon tightening with every beat, like his devotion was a gift to be claimed. His heart was out of time with his music. Francis considered ripping it out. He didn’t think his parents would approve of that, but maybe it would draw their attention enough so that they would stop fighting.
Every day since the holidays started, it was the same fight, the same points. His mother and father were both right, both wrong, but they didn’t listen to each other, or they just couldn’t come to terms with their different solutions. Francis didn’t care about solutions. He still desperately wished that there was no problem. They had never fought like this before Frey came along.
They did agree about one thing, though: Frey was getting better in every sense of the word. He gained some weight, developed more strength. In the past couple of weeks, he had learned to use tableware and developed an understanding of smartphone technology, to the point where they were considering adding him to the family plan. Francis was allowed in the same room as Frey, now, with the unspoken knowledge that they wouldn’t look at each other, let alone speak. Frey no longer clung to Francis’s parents every waking moment, only seeking them out when he craved them in eight minute intervals.
Like clockwork, Francis thought bitterly, when a pencil clattered to the floor. He peeked up from his arms to see Frey breeze out of the room – in hand-me-down clothes, footsteps too light – and up the stairs calling for Mama and Papa. The titles sounded wrong, too childish for a voice already starting to crack with teenage years. He left his handwriting exercises sprawled across the table – Francis’s parents were teaching their son to read and write.
Frey was getting better, and Francis hated him for it.
Abandoning his earphones, Francis approached the coffee table to pick up the pencil. He realized with dismay that it was one of his 4B art pencils, and the lead inside was probably disintegrated. Though he knew he should have blamed his mother, who’d been the one give it away, the irrational whisper in Francis spat in anger over Frey.
Gingerly, Francis placed his pencil back on the table when Frey’s handiwork caught his eye. There were the usual assignments, exercises printed off the internet with dotted letters for children to trace, which Frey had been accomplishing with no trouble at all. And then there were the blank sheets filled with growing scrawl, the alphabet repeating again and again in shaky hand until a series of letters written in more confident hand: F, R…
Francis stared. His fingers crinkled the paper when he picked it up, hand shaking. Whereas the alphabet was written delicately, pale and perfect, erasable without a trace, the letters of his own name were pressed hard enough to indent the paper, dark and determined strokes.
He felt a slice of pain when the paper was snapped from his hand. Hissing, Francis brought his palm to his mouth to suck the sting away and turned, furious, to Frey, who stood grey and cold but equally outraged. In the back of his mind, Francis noticed the difference in their anger, his own bright like a flare but Frey’s tempered like an old, painstakingly sharpened blade.
“What is that?” Francis demanded, jerking his head towards the offending paper. Frey’s expression was inscrutable, sick with something but etched with malice, sparked with pride, and he smoothed wrinkles out of the paper on his stomach with one hand.
“What does it look like?” Frey asked, and Francis realized with a rise of rage and a lurch of despair that this was their first interaction since that very first day. Their first shared look. Their first shared words. Francis swallowed to keep grounded.
With a deep breath, he tried to rein in his anger. Even though he hated it, even though something in him wanted to break things, Francis was raised better. He had to be mature, and he tried to rephrase his question. It came out accusing, anyway. “I asked you first. Why are you writing my na—” his hip clipped the table on the way down, and he knocked the back of his head on the hard knob of the sofa armrest. Francis yelped, clutching the painful swell of his skull, and shot Frey a look that could have killed.
If anything, Frey was the calm one. He looked down at Francis with his father’s eyes, his mother’s frown, their dark hair tousled and shadowing the boy’s face, and Francis hated him, hated him more than anything else in the world. The coldness in Frey’s dark eyes assured him it was mutual. “It was my name first,” Frey said, and Francis felt his glamor spark, about to short circuit.
Faeries saw too clearly. Every detail crammed into their awareness until it was all they knew. The image of this boy who looked so much like Francis’s parents, wearing Francis’s flannel pajamas, clutching Francis’s name like he owned it – it seared into Francis’s mind, and the fear came in waves. He could see himself fade from the photo albums, making way for this boy with the right face, the right blood.
The call tangled up in his chest and squeezed.
“I’ve lived with this name fourteen years,” Francis said, and his voice sounded like it came from someone else, someone far away.
“It was supposed to be my name.”
Francis rose from the floor, head throbbing, heart racing. “I’m not giving up my name for you.”
This time, Francis saw the shove coming, and he stood his ground, grabbing Frey’s wrist. He only just managed to keep from snarling. Frey didn’t like that at all, pulling back his free hand to ready a strike. “It’s not your name!” he cried, and Francis barely dodged the blow. It nicked his cheekbone, and though the pain wasn’t any worse than the papercut or the fall, it was enough to set Francis over the edge.
He yanked Frey by the arm and threw the boy down into the sofa. Francis couldn’t help the wisp of satisfaction he felt at Frey’s utter shock. His glamor sat too stiff and heavy on his skin. “It sure as hell isn’t yours,” he said, words like frost on a windowpane, and that felt good too. It felt fulfilling – all the frustration he’d packed down into himself was coming out in a rush, and his blood was singing with it. Francis felt alive, up until he realized that Frey didn’t share the sentiment.
With a sickening snap back to his senses, Francis realized Frey was trembling. Even though Francis was making a valiant effort to hold onto his violence, his rage, Frey looked haunted, breath hitching like he was being strangled. Francis almost expected purple bruises to bloom against the boy’s throat.
“I,” Francis started, but didn’t know what to say, his own panic creeping up from the tremor in his hands. He backed away, nearly slipped on the paper that had fallen in the scuffle. In a burst of agitation, he swept it away with his foot, turning on his heel. “Forget it,” he said, shoulders sagging. It was unfair. He couldn’t even fight back without being the bad guy.
He stalked away, calling up the stairs. His mother could take care of her son.
Frey got a smartphone for holidays. It was the newest model, and though the nuance of that was lost on the boy, it was a sore spot for Francis and his phone of three years. Granted, he was the one who’d chided his parents that he would use it until it broke, but Frey had no use for half the functions on that new phone, and Francis didn’t want to think about how much it cost.
His grip tightened around his own modest present – a new yearly planner, like he asked for. “Thanks, Dad. I love it,” he said, and worse than the lie was how he might have meant it under different circumstances. He ate holiday food and drank hot chocolate just to keep his mouth shut, and the meager festivities came to an end when well-meaning carolers came stopped by their house with jingling bells.
They found Frey in the cupboard, huddled so small in a tangle of bony limbs that Francis’s parents spent the next two hours coaxing him out.
Francis didn’t remember much after that. It was like he blinked and it was the New Year’s countdown, the entire neighborhood shouting out the last few seconds of the year. There’s that saying that whatever you feel at the stroke of midnight sets the tone for the coming year – Francis came to his senses with four seconds left, halfway down the drive in his pajamas. The snow bit into his feet, the wind harsh enough that it felt like his glamor would be blown away.
From the open door behind him, he heard his parents counting down, three, two – and there with a joyous lilt to the third voice that sounded so like it belonged there – one – and distantly, Francis thought he heard someone call his name, but it was swallowed up by the cheer of “Happy New Year!” that rose up from every house on the street. Fireworks bloomed in the sky with a bang.
An irrational surge of frustration overwhelmed him, watching artificial lights swallow up the heavens. At some point he had walked further out, into the street, and the snow there was slurry, tainted and black. The acrid taste of car exhaust settled like dust in his mouth. He wanted to leave this awful place for cleaner lands, where the air was sweet and fresh and the night sky shimmered with stars.
A loud, piercing beep cut through the sound of fireworks, startling Francis to his senses. He careened back just in time to avoid the car that swerved right on by, tail lights streaking. And then he realized exactly what had transpired, what he had been about to do, and it was like he had been hit by the car anyway. He bolted back into his home.
His father was by the sofa, on his feet like he’d been looking for something. Francis. Looking for Francis. “Francis, what were you doing out there?” his father asked, rushing forward to brush stray snow from his clothes.
“Wanted to see the fireworks,” Francis replied, and the lies came too quick, too easily now. He hated himself. He could hear his mother laughing with Frey in the kitchen, and he didn’t want to be here. He wanted to leave. It was getting difficult to tell how much of that was him and how much of that was the call and what that blurred division meant for him. He didn’t want to be here, but he wanted to stay in his home. “I’m tired. I’ll be in my room.”
“What about the first sunrise?”
Francis hesitated. It was a family tradition, one that he loved more than any other. Sitting outside, watching the changing sky, sharing resolutions… but he couldn’t do it. He was still reeling from the strange passage of time, the disorienting fog of the call. He wanted to, but he had hit his limit days ago. Swallowing down the misery, he forced a smile. “I’ll let Frey have it,” he said.
No amount of hot chocolate could wash out the bitterness of those words.
Soon enough, it was spring term. What was usually mild excitement to see his friends again, this year, was stark relief. Putting on that uniform, sitting down at his desk and pressing his cheek to the cool wood, Francis felt himself melt into the familiar atmosphere. He had felt crooked all break, and someone had finally nudged him back into place. The teachers and lessons didn’t matter – not as if they taught much first day back anyway – it was the simple sense of belonging that caught hold of his attention. He hated how he felt, but he dreaded going home.
Out of nowhere, someone poked him between the eyes, and Francis reared back, almost toppling over his chair. Grasping at his desk for balance, he glowered up at Emma, who was clearly biting back amusement. “You almost gouged my eye out,” he complained, rubbing where her nail had scratched him.
Emma was unrepentant, hands on her hips like her mother so often did. Her lips twitched in laughter, but there was a marked determination to her eyes. A bad sign. “I’ve been trying to get your attention since the bell rang!”
Francis didn’t remember hearing a bell and scowled. “Which was?”
Emma opened her arms to indicate the empty room around them. Her lips pinched together in a scowl. “What is going on with you, Fran?”
Francis wrinkled his nose at the nickname. “You’ve let Henry get to you.”
“No, it’s just cute. Sounds like flan. Besides the point.” Blowing her hair from her face, Emma pulled up a chair to sit at an angle from Francis, which certainly felt like less of an interrogation but did feel a bit like a psychotherapy talk show. He wasn’t sure which he preferred. “So, what’s wrong? Leave your head back at hols?”
Holidays were the last thing he wanted to think about. “Emma, I’m fine – it’s just Monday and the first day back. Everyone’s a bit out of it.”
“And yet you’re the only one with your head this far in the clouds. I think you’ve reached the moon,” Emma said. She leaned in, looking at him so intently that Francis, for a moment, feared she would see straight through his glamor and to the wretched, true face of him. He leaned back and avoided her eyes.
“Well, that’s new. You’re usually a better liar than that.”
Francis cast her a flat look. “So maybe I’m not lying.”
She didn’t even consider that for a second. “No, you’re lying. And if I can’t get the truth out of you, Henry will, and if he doesn’t we can play the waiting game.” She shifted in her seat again, kicking her feet. “Mum always says, the truth always gets out in the end.”
He didn’t have much to say to that, so after a minute, Francis stood up from his chair and nudged his friend in the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s see if there’s any food left.”
His parents were fighting less, now that Francis was back to school. Maybe not having the reminder of their problems in proximity helped them relax, or maybe they just argued while he was in class. Either way, it was better, but it didn’t put him at ease in the least.
Meanwhile, Francis and Frey had returned to blatant denial of the other’s existence. They sat at the same table now and ate the same food, but they never so much as glanced at each other. Francis tried to converse with his parents as he always did, tried to ignore how their attention flicked to the other side of the table every so often. He didn’t dare follow their eyes. He didn’t even need to, really. After their winter altercation, Francis could see Frey too clearly in his mind, in clothes and coloring that all used to belong to him.
So, school became reprieve. Every day, Francis found himself leaving for it earlier and found excuses to stay later. He went to Henry’s house, firmly declining the household stock of alcohol, and he let Emma introduce him to crew, though he was sore for a week just from a warmup exercises. He doubted he would ever take up an oar. The other members laughed at him for that, but it broke the ice well enough.
It wasn’t perfect, and his longing for his family twisted with the homesick pang of the call into a confusing knot in his mind, but Francis could work with it. He could spend his day in a world free of Frey before diving back down into the frigid stalemate of his home. It was tolerable. He could deal with it.
It only made sense that it wouldn’t last.
“Francis, your father and I had a long talk,” his mother said one evening, taking the time to find Francis alone. He knew it was important because his parents didn’t do that much, anymore. Most days they were insistent on having the ‘whole family’ together ‘to bond’, and so his mother’s approach set him on edge, shoulders seizing. This must be it, he thought, the moment his parents realized that he wasn’t worth keeping around.
Feeling rather cold, Francis swallowed down the tightness in his throat, tried to look unassuming. “Is something wrong, Mom?” he asked.
“No, sweetheart. Nothing’s wrong,” his mother said, but she said it smoothing the fabric at his shoulders like he was nine again, as if trying to soothe him. It was anything but soothing. Francis watched her hesitate a moment, her mouth twitch around the words, but she said them anyway. They were almost worse than what he feared. “Your father and I were thinking that it would be a good idea for Frey to attend your school.”
Francis felt his heart plummet. He physically felt it stutter inside him as he tried to process his mother’s words. He failed. “What?” he asked, because he had prepared himself for rejection, to pack up and leave and maybe die in a ditch somewhere, and he didn’t know what his mother was asking of him right now. He didn’t know what to do.
“Not in your grade, of course – he’s so behind… I’m not even sure if the school will let him into Key Stage 3, let alone 4, but we’ll have to try. We think it would be good for Frey to get the chance to meet children his age.” She kept talking, but her words faded to a buzz in Francis’s mind, and he nodded to please her, but he couldn’t fathom what he had agreed to.
Frey at his school. Frey on his campus. Frey existing outside this house.
Frey existing to his friends.
“Is he ready for that?” Francis asked through the tightness of his throat. He twisted his fingers into the fabric of his pants to keep calm. His hands ached.
His mother sighed, gaze drifting. “I’m not sure if he ever will be,” she said, as if confessing some great secret. Admitting it hurt her. Francis could see that plain as day, in the taut line of her mouth. For the first time in a long time, he studied his mother, and he realized with dismay that she had aged years in a matter of months. However, her eyes were bright when she looked at him and forced a gentle smile. “But sweetheart, we’re going to have to try.”
Faced with her determination, Francis fell silent.
The official story was that Frey attended a dance school in Russia. It explained his difficulty reading English, his lacking knowledge of other subjects, and the strange fluidity of his grace all at once. Francis was grateful the school placed Frey a year below – Key Stage 3 studied in a separate building. Uncertain about having Frey brave public transport to start with, his parents had worked their schedules to drop the boy off personally. Francis stuck with the bus.
For four days, Francis could pretend that nothing had changed. At school, if he immersed himself in his work and the company of his peers, he could pretend to forget Frey’s presence on school grounds. At home, he could slip into his room and stay there while his parents asked their son how his day was, if school suits him – questions that were no longer Francis’s to answer.
Emma’s confrontation was inevitable.
“How come I’m last to hear about this brother of yours?” she said, cornering him in the corridor after classes, and Francis felt himself go cold.
“I assure you, you’re not the last,” he said airily, stepping around her. As he passed, he glimpsed Frey through an open classroom door and recoiled, knocking straight into Emma behind him.
“Hey, watch it!” she protested, but Francis barely heard it.
“What is he doing here?” He flinched. He could have slapped a hand over his mouth. He prayed the venom hadn’t laced his words. Frey didn’t notice him and just continued with… whatever, hunching over a notebook with a pencil clutched tight.
“Well, seeing as this is the tutoring room, I assume he’s being tutored,” Emma replied, as if her words were mere words and not ice water down Francis’s back.
“Are,” he had to swallow, his mouth suddenly too dry, “you his tutor?”
Suddenly, Emma was before him, blocking his view of the classroom. Her shoulders sagged with utter exasperation. “Am I in the room with him? Fran, what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong,” Francis lied, and he tried again to walk away. Out of sight and out of mind. That worked out well for him, nowadays. Unfortunately, Emma had a keen sense of object permanence, and she decided to tag alongside him.
“Well, tell me about him!” she insisted, falling into step. Francis had never once wished his friends wouldn’t have time for him, but he was starting to get close.
“There’s nothing to say,” he said. “He’s my parents’ son, he lives in our house, he goes to this school. You know all that.” He tried to emphasize the note of finality and end the conversation. Emma wasn’t having it.
“Why is he in Key Stage 3 instead of 4?” she asked, and something in her voice struck Francis as accusing.
He took cover behind his family’s rehearsed lie. “He’s been studying at a dance school in Russia,” he said. “He’s fallen behind with normal course work. Can barely read or write English, practically a foreigner.”
“That’s an odd manner of upbringing,” Emma remarked, and Francis was inclined to agree. “He sounds less foreign than you, though. At least he says ‘mama’ instead of ‘mom’, though I suppose it is quite old-fashioned.”
This time when Francis stopped, Emma walked straight past him. He stared after her, feeling something sick curl in his stomach. As if sensing his weakness, the call tried to sweep in and take hold of him. He wanted to be anywhere but here.
“And how would you know that?” he demanded.
Emma peered at him over her shoulder. “I don’t tutor him but I have met the boy, Fran. Do keep up.”
“You never mentioned that!”
“You never mentioned him!” she shot back, hands on her hips. “Fran, you’re acting utterly bizarre! What is it? Do you not like your brother or something?”
“He’s—” not my brother. Francis couldn’t say that. That would just cause trouble. That would bring scrutiny and questions and he couldn’t take that. He just wanted to stop talking about this. “He’s adopted.”
That hadn’t been what he intended to say at all, but Emma blinked, intrigued. “Adopted?” she echoed, with that high note of awkwardness people got when they were trying too hard to be polite. Francis felt a vindictive thrill beneath the wave of guilt he felt as he nodded.
“Yes, and it’s an awkward situation. Don’t spread that around,” he added, and he felt his heart pound in his chest as the lies spilled from his mouth. He should stop. He could have ended this some other way. But it felt good. This would have been a truth he could live with. There was no harm in just having one person believing it. “That’s why you hadn’t heard of him before, and I’m just. We haven’t gotten on. Cultural differences.”
“I… see,” Emma said, hesitant. She twisted her mouth, pensive, but he could see the frown in her eyes. “I suppose that makes sense. Good of your parents to go through with that. Mum says the process is a nightmare.”
Francis was sick with himself. He felt like he was floating. Every measured breath was too heavy with air.
“Yes,” he said. “It was good of them. Very charitable, that.”
If he walked a little too quickly on his way out the school building, Emma had the sense not to mention it.
Francis had known when he told her that he could trust Emma to keep a secret. She wouldn’t share it with anyone but Henry who, as their mutual second friend, had a right to know. It was Francis’s failing that he always forgot to account for Henry’s more erratic behavior. So the whole fiasco was his own fault.
He’d had a full week to construct his new truth, piece by piece. Emma, despite her due respect, started asking more questions three days in. Henry, upon finding out, wanted to know everything about having an adopted brother.
“I mean, it would be so weird. It sucks enough to have an actual older brother,” Henry said, wrinkling his nose. “Can’t imagine getting one out of nowhere.”
And this was why Francis couldn’t give up the game, why he continued to line his boundaries with lies. It was the only way anyone could understood what Francis was going through. Henry was right, exactly right, and Francis could have cried. He settled for a roll of his eyes, sinking back into his chair. “We’re the same age,” he reminded him, “and it is weird. I can’t get used to him. In fact, when he’s not ignoring my existence, he looks at me like I killed his cat.”
Or stole his parents. Ruined his life. Francis curled his fingers into the wood of his desk and ignored that thread of thought.
Emma scowled. “Oh, that’s terrible,” she said, and Francis felt the words prick at his conscience. “I’m sorry.” As soon as she said it, her face opened up with a quiet realization, and she flicked a finger at his direction. “So that’s why you were so off after winter holiday!” she said, triumphant, and Francis found himself agitated by her muted glee. “I told you, didn’t I, Fran? The truth gets out in the end.”
She said it with such fondness that Francis might have been able to ignore the unwelcome note of victory in her words given different circumstances. However, his circumstances were what they were, and she was telling him that his comfortable home of lies would crumble eventually. He took it like a slap to the face.
Francis had agreed and laughed it off and hoped she would be wrong, this time. He really should have learned by now that she really never was.
He heard the commotion from down the corridor and thought it curious at first. Despite the occasional quarrel, it was a reputable school, so outright fights were rare in Francis’s academic life. It wasn’t any of his business though, so he would have carried right on by if he didn’t hear Henry cry out. And then he heard a familiar voice pitch high into hysteria, and Francis dropped his books in his mad dash down the hall.
“I’m not adopted!” Frey shouted, both hands twisted into Henry’s collar, and Francis felt a sick lurch of guilt drain him cold. Frey’s face was crumpled, unsightly, blotched red in a way that Francis’s glamor would never allow him to. Francis could see the tremble in the human’s hand. He saw the moment Henry noticed him, casting out a terrified, pleading glance, but he didn’t know what to do.
And then Frey followed Henry’s line of sight. It was a slow, haunted movement, as if he expected to see a ghost when he turned fully. Instead, he saw the cause of all his unhappiness just standing here, staring, and Henry ceased to matter.
Frey leapt at Francis, seizing him by the shoulders, and he was close enough that Francis could see the flecks of gold in his parents’ dark eyes. “Why did you lie?!” Frey cried out in outrage, but his words dripped with his tears and voice cracked down the middle, and Francis felt it like a snap down his sternum.
Francis didn’t move, couldn’t. There was nothing he could do or say. Faeries didn’t fight nor flee – they felt. And staring down at Frey, seeing for the first time the shadows swiped beneath those eyes and the way devastation settled on the boy’s face like an old, unwanted friend, Francis felt…
He felt awful.
They must have stood there like that, a timeless tableau, for longer than Francis realized, because the next thing he knew, Henry was there with a teacher in tow, and they were being ordered to the head of school’s office. Frey wouldn’t have it. He dug his fingers into the bones of Francis’s shoulders, and it hurt so that Francis grabbed the human’s wrists as if to pry him off. Instead, he stood stock still and stared at Frey, who glowered at him so desperately that nothing else seemed to exist. A schoolteacher held no power over a boy of the fey.
“I’m sorry.” Francis gasped the words, blinking at Frey with terrible surprise. He didn’t like this feeling. It was as if he’d begun to yank a rope from his throat, and the first knot dragged up had scraped his heart and throat raw. Francis wondered if, with Frey’s shock struck across his own face, they did, at least a little, look like brothers.
The teacher lost her patience and shoved between the two of them, but Francis didn’t look away from his parents’ son. If Frey possessed any more fury, he lost hold of it, and his expression went blank, eyes unseeing. Francis watched in horror as despair washed his parents’ son somewhere far away as it had done so many times before.
Frey, as the instigator, was taken into the head’s office first. Francis already knew that there would be no conversation. While he sat on the bench just outside the door, listening to the head’s muffled monologue, Henry slunk in to take the seat next to him.
“I’m sorry you have to live with that,” Henry grumbled, readjusting his tie, and Francis regretted every word he’d ever said about Frey. “He’s off his rocker, isn’t he? How do you put up with it?”
“I…” Francis couldn’t speak. Faeries saw too clearly, and Frey’s image was seared into his mind’s eye. Faeries saw too clearly, but that wasn’t quite right, was it? “He’s not…” adopted. Try as he might, Francis couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He had known, right from the start, that it was a horrible thing to say, in their circumstances, the worst lie to tell. He couldn’t confess to his cruelty if he wanted to keep Henry as a friend.
In the end, he really was a changeling. Nothing more than a faerie, selfish as they come.
“He’s not that bad,” Francis finally said, staring down at his hands as they flexed, gripping the edge of the wooden bench. The call pulsed through his bones to the painful pound of his heart.
“You’re just too nice for your own good, Fran,” Henry scoffed from beside him. “If you’re not careful, he’ll walk all over you. Me and my brother, we had this row once, and I had to in the end…”
Francis didn’t listen. He didn’t say another word. And even when it was his turn to meet the head of school, he couldn’t bear to speak.
“So unspeakably disappointed in you, Francis!”
“Why would you spread a rumor like that?”
“After everything Frey’s been through, how could you do this to your brother?”
“Francis, look at us when we’re talking to you. Francis!”
“Francis Johnathon Morrow!”
Staring at the table, Francis could do nothing. He could answer none of those questions, couldn’t comply. He couldn’t bear to look at his parents, who shared Frey’s features and coloring. Throat tight with tears he refused to let fall, he distracted himself by picking at a loose thread in the sofa cushion.
“And fighting in the hallway? Son, we raised you better than that,” his father continued, words loud and hard. “Fighting with Frey, of all people, when he’s so much weaker than you.”
Frey was upstairs and out of sight. He was probably still dazed and distant, Francis realized as his parents’ voices blurred into the white noise rushing through his mind. Faeries saw too clearly, and he could imagine Frey down to the very shade of the sleepless bruises beneath his harrowed eyes. Faeries saw too clearly, and yet Francis had been ridiculously blind.
It wasn’t until Frey was shouting up at him that Francis realized how small his parents’ son actually was, shorter and slighter than himself. As if he never had enough of anything to thrive. It wasn’t until Frey was welling tears like blood from a wound that Francis realized how much sadness his parents’ son was hiding. Bursting at the seams with it.
“We never should have sent Frey to school.” His father’s words flashed like a siren through Francis’s thoughts. Francis was sick of that tone. “I told you, we weren’t ready for this.”
Francis’s throat grew tight as his mother exhaled sharply, hands raking through her hair. “He would have fallen further behind. And you heard what he said – he wanted a normal life. He just wanted to go to school and make friends, like Francis did.”
“And what about Francis? Did y—”
“Of course I did! If you dare think for a second, that I would neglect our son that way—”
His eyes grew hot. “Please don’t fight,” Francis whispered as he blinked away the blur. His leaned back into the sofa, still avoiding his parents’ gaze, and fixed his stare to a spot on the ceiling. “Please. You’re both fine. I’m the one who messed up. Please don’t fight.”
Without even facing them, he could feel his parents look to him. He wondered if that was a faerie thing too.
“Francis,” his mother said with a gentleness that ruined his resolve. His face crumpled and he sniffled, a tear trailing down his temple. “Oh, Francis.” The sofa dipped with his mother’s weight, and suddenly her arms, warm and firm, wrapped around him. He tried to regain control of his breathing, but it was useless. Hiccupping gasps seized his lungs and didn’t stop even when he clamped his lips shut. He struggled against it until he couldn’t breathe and had no choice but to sob.
His mother rubbed circles into his back as if he were a child, and he clutched at the hem of her shirt as he cried. It was stupid. He had no right to cry when he was the one who had hurt himself, his parents, and Frey all in one breath. From the very start, he was the one who ruined everything. He was fourteen years old, too old for tears. Even knowing all that, he couldn’t stop, and when his father settled a hand over his head, he only cried harder. Even when his glamor dripped apart, his tears melting it away, they didn’t let go.
Francis cried his heart out, so much that the call lost hold of it, at least for the moment. He wanted nothing more than to stay there in his parents’ arms for the rest of all time. And they stayed with him until his quiet sobs lessened to sniffles, and the tears dried on his cheeks. They stayed with him longer than that as well.
His mother rocked him gently back and forth, still humming comforting noises. “Francis,” she said, without any anger, “why did you tell people Frey’s adopted?”
“I don’t know.” That wasn’t true. Francis knew exactly why he did and said the things he did, but the thinking behind it was long and muddled and a jumble in his mind. It was difficult to explain the call when he didn’t feel it. He didn’t know how to explain any of it at all.
His father set a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “We just want to talk, Francis,” he said. “Help us make sense of this. Nothing makes fighting with Frey like that acceptable, but maybe we can understand why it happened. We thought you were doing okay, but maybe we’ve been giving too much attention to Frey.”
“That rhymes,” Francis said, inexplicably. He cringed at himself, but his father chuckled, so maybe it was all right.
“Yes, it does,” his father said. “But that doesn’t answer the question. Is that it, Francis? Is… we thought you just needed time to get used to the idea, or maybe realized Frey needed some space to warm up to you, but… do you not like your brother?”
Startled, Francis jerked his head up to stare at his father. Turning to his mother, she had that same, expectant expression. Faced with that, all he could do was give a breathless little laugh. He thought back to the months of resentment, the festering jealousy, all so obvious to himself.
Faeries saw too clearly, but being stupidly blind must have been a human thing.
After a moment, Francis shrugged out of his mother’s hold and righted himself in the seat. He near flinched at the sight of his own hands, pale as blue forget-me-nots, sheening in the living-room light. His knuckles were iridescent when he flexed his fingers. He had never known that before.
“I didn’t lie to hurt him,” he confessed, finally. “I didn’t think he would find out. He wasn’t supposed to. But we were too different, and people asked questions, and—”
No, he could pin the blame every which way forever, but that wasn’t the heart of the issue. When Francis realized that, he said the truth out loud before he lost his nerve.
“If he was the adopted one, then I wouldn’t have to be.”
He felt, more than saw or heard, his parents’ reactions. He felt the weight of his words settle over them like rain, little by little, and he felt the shift of their posture, how taken aback they were. And he definitely felt their warmth when they leaned in to embrace him.
“Were you worrying about that all this time?” his mother asked, disbelief pitching her words so much that Francis almost felt foolish nodding. Almost. “Francis, we didn’t raise a stranger these last fourteen years.”
Francis breathed in sharply, tears brimming again. He was fourteen years old, but suddenly he was that changeling child again, with green, green eyes and heartbreaking determination, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And that was startling too. He hadn’t realized he had ever grown past that.
His father ruffled his hair then, and Francis wondered how it looked without glamor, if it would ruffle up in the same way. “Francis, even with Frey here now, we still love you,” his father said with a tender hush to his words. “Having him back with us would never mean you lose your place here.”
“I’m beginning to understand that.” Francis said, though he didn’t know if he meant it yet. Maybe he didn’t have to know. Maybe he just had to believe it.
Francis had never once, in all these months, stood in front of Frey’s room. Most of the time, he had forgotten it existed, which was easy enough since before Frey, it had been the guest room, and Francis had no reason to be interested in a guest room. So, really, he had no right to be so surprised by its door.
A blackboard hung from a hook on the door, crooked on its twine. There was a tiny doodle of some device in the corner, with a jagged speech bubble filling up most of the space. “F.M. Radio” was written in blue outline, lightly shaded with white. Francis realized that the device in the corner was the car’s dashboard. He hadn’t known that Frey enjoyed the radio, let alone enough to want it on his door. There were many things Francis didn’t know about Frey, and he never would at this rate.
Francis took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and knocked on the door twice before he lost his nerve. He listened too carefully for the rustle from inside.
“Come in,” Frey called out, and Francis sighed in relief that he didn’t come to the door himself.
“Even if it’s me?” he asked, and he feared for a moment he spoke too quietly. He wasn’t sure if he could say it again. There was dead silence from the other end, and Francis was about to give up on the whole ordeal when he heard the pound of footsteps and the sharp click of the bedroom lock. He supposed he deserved that. He could sense Frey’s presence on the other side of the door, as if Francis were standing in his shadow.
“Stay away from me,” Frey said, dark and low.
Francis flinched at the words more than the tone. He had expected the tone. However, he had steeled himself for a ‘go away’ – that was always the order, wasn’t it, ‘go away’ and then ‘stay away’? But it made sense. Someone who went could return. There was no way to return from a ‘stay away’, and if Francis left now, he couldn’t change his mind without breaking an agreement. Thus, even though wanted nothing more than to leave Frey alone and go back to leading separate lives, for both their future’s sake, Francis stayed.
In fact, Francis turned and sank to the floor, sitting with his back to the room. Frey must have noticed, seeing as he kicked his door, hard. Francis winced. “We had rules,” Frey hissed viciously, and Francis was surprised yet again. He hadn’t realized that Frey, too, had noticed their unspoken arrangement. Francis realized with dismay that, in some part, he hadn’t thought of Frey as capable enough. He hadn’t imagined an internal sense for Frey at all.
Francis jolted with another thud at the door, and then a tremor from higher up, like Frey had slammed his fist into it. “I should have known a faerie doesn’t keep to rules,” he spat, and even that was more words than Francis had imagined Frey capable of. Francis wondered what else he had been wrong about.
“We have a door between us,” Francis pointed out.
“We both know a door means nothing to you,” Frey said with venom, and there was a story to that statement, but Francis couldn’t fathom what that could mean.
“I… don’t understand,” Francis said, anxiety starting to crawl up his spine. This was a bad idea. Nothing good could come from this, but he had to carry through this. His parents had gotten so many things wrong because they had a completely off perception of the state of things, of how he felt. Francis needed to understand Frey. He should have been making this effort from the start.
And somehow, Francis could sense it. It must have been a faerie thing, but he knew Frey just then had rolled his eyes, and Francis wondered where he learned that, if he had always done that, or if Frey had learned the habit from TV. Francis then wondered, fiercely, if Frey too had spent hours upon hours studying how to be human.
But he had, Francis realized. Frey had been studying this whole time, and Francis had witnessed it. He had seen the way Frey went from hands to tableware, the endless letters of the alphabet, the decorative blackboard on the door above his head right now. That kind of progress wasn’t the result of passive learning.
“It’s a riot to you, isn’t it,” Frey said, snapping Francis from his thoughts. Even more than before, Francis was lost, but Frey continued with anger mounting with every word. “My tears were a joke, weren’t they? Did you have a nice laugh?” Frey’s frustration seeped through the cracks of the door, and Francis understood even less, mind reeling. This conversation wasn’t going how he had hoped at all. “And my anger right now, I bet that’s hilarious, too! I’m reacting just the way you want!”
Frey’s voice broke at the last word, and there was a light thud, as if he had meant to throw a fist but changed his mind. Francis felt the door shudder as Frey, palm to the wood, slid down to the floor.
“Dancing to your tune,” Frey whispered, and Francis’s fear seized him by the throat. He didn’t understand, not in the slightest. He didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t know if Frey was okay, or if he had grown distant again – he didn’t know if his parents even owned any of the keys to the rooms – and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say to Frey—
Francis sank his head into his hands and took a breath, disappointed in himself. The answer was obvious. He should have done what he would do for anyone else.
“Are you okay?” he asked. The words came out hoarse, as if they’d grown brittle from waiting. They were long overdue.
The silence that followed was all-encompassing, and were it not for his own heartbeat in his ears, Francis might have thought he’d gone deaf.
Frey’s response was slow in coming and slower to be said. “What…” Frey murmured the word, tasted it like a flavor that didn’t fit. Then the vitriol returned full force, and he sneered, “What do you mean by that?”
Francis swallowed, throat dry. “I’m just… worried,” he said.
“Worried. Of course.” Frey chuckled, and Francis was startled by the quaver. He could hear the fear in Frey’s voice. Something about the laughter was heartbreaking. “Worried, about me. Worried, just like your brother.”
Francis went cold. “Brother?” he echoed, and suddenly it wasn’t fear looped around his throat. The call tightened like a noose, and he choked on it. He struggled to find words. “I don’t have a brother,” he managed.
“Of course you do,” Frey replied, immediate. His words slowly colored with an anger that had aged over a decade, and Francis felt it creep over him. “You have a brother and a mother and an entire life waiting for you, and all of your own kind. So go back to them.” Frey slammed back into the door, and his head must have been right above Francis’s shoulder because Francis heard him loud and clear. “Go back to them and stay away from me!”
“I don’t know them,” Francis whispered, breathing shallow, eyes wide. “They’re not real to me.”
“Liar,” Frey said, breaths coming in sharp gasps.
“I’m not. I don’t have a brother. I don’t want one,” Francis said, words a rush, mind racing, before realizing how those words felt wrong coming from his mouth. He blinked, looked up in surprise when he realized why. “The only brother I’m willing to have is you.”
“I’m telling the truth,” Francis said, hand coming to cover his mouth.
This time, Francis appreciated the silence. He was still trying to understand his own feelings about what he’d just said. Frey, his brother. Everyone else already thought that they were. They were probably the last holdouts, which ironically, was one of their few similarities. But not their only, Francis realized. And likely not their last.
“Do you want me to leave?” Francis asked, quietly, once the silence stretched too long. Frey didn’t dignify that with an answer, and Francis didn’t blame him. “Right, stupid question,” he mumbled, mirthless. “Of course you would.”
Frey gave a laugh, sharp and soundless. It didn’t cut Francis like it might have before.
“Mom and Dad will be upset, if I do go,” Francis said instead, thinking back to his tears and their soothing. Their love for him.
Finally, Frey spoke. “They’ll get over it,” he said. “They’ll get better over time.”
“I thought the same, until yesterday,” Francis confessed.
Frey remained silent.
Francis drew up his knees and leaned his temple against the door. “I think we both know now that they wouldn’t.”
With his ear so close to the door, Francis could hear the shaky breath Frey forced in, feel Frey brace himself against the door. “They have me now,” Frey said, and the words themselves sounded convincing. Everything else that Francis noticed now made it clear how little Frey believed in those words. Francis knew exactly how that felt. He held onto that thin connection like a lifeline as the call loosened and let him fall.
“They do,” Francis said, words harsher than he intended, but honest. “They do, and they’d be devastated if you disappeared too. I knew that from the start.”
And in that moment, Francis desperately wanted to know Frey’s expression. Maybe in Frey’s face, he could see what his own must have looked like upon such a revelation. Maybe if he saw Frey’s face, he could understand all the motivation behind the things Frey had said.
“If nothing else, we’re the same in one way,” Francis said to the door. “Neither of us wants to see… our parents, hurt.” There was a creak of wood, Frey standing up too quickly. Francis bolted up as well – he couldn’t lose this connection, not now. “We should try to get along,” he declared. “For their sake, if nothing else.”
“I’m not falling for any more faerie tricks.”
Francis paused at that, thinking of the story that lied behind such words. He wondered for the first time what a faerie symbolized to Frey, what Frey saw in him. He thought for the first time about what his own actions must have meant to Frey, what his hatred that infected the household conveyed.
“For what it’s worth, Frey,” Francis said, leaning his forehead to the door. He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
The silence that followed lingered so long that Francis feared that Frey had left the door, retreated to his bed. Francis didn’t even know what Frey’s bed looked like. Then, all of a sudden, Francis felt Frey mirror him. Inexplicably, he knew that Frey had leaned into the door as well.
“You said that before, too,” Frey said, words scraping the wood of the door. As if realizing the softness of those first words, his next were bristled, daring Francis to deny them. “Faeries never apologize.”
If that was so, Francis felt relief. He felt relief so strong that his whole body went slack with it. If what Frey said was true, then Francis had never had anything to worry about in the first place. Call or not, he had no place in their realm. If apologizing was a human thing, Francis was grateful to have it.
“So maybe I’m different,” he said before backing away. And as he turned to walk away, he heard the click of a doorknob turned. Francis looked over his shoulder to see Frey, staring at him, sparked with outrage, tempered with confusion. Francis stared back.
And like that, the two looked at each other for the very first time.
((There was initially going to be a part 3 beyond this point, but it might be best for me to just move on with life. I meant to have this done on Wednesday, but guess it’s going up now instead. I am well aware that there are issues with this particular story that need to be addressed before I can deem it complete, but feedback would be appreciated all the same. ))