Shadow of the Templar: Cuckoo's Egg, Extended Edition: Chapter Three
On timeline: early to mid-1990s, ten to fifteen years before the events of the books
The long hallway was dim, the lights turned down. The walls were studded with small bumps; Bran, who knew very well what they were, found himself a place to lurk behind Ethan. Ethan settled himself tailor-fashion at the end of the hallway and snapped his fingers under Jeremiah's nose. "Look at me," Ethan said.
Jeremiah jumped a little and stopped staring off down the hallway, turning to stare at Ethan instead. His hair (a dark reddish-brown at the moment, thanks to a lesson in basic disguise this morning) flopped heavily in his eyes. Jeremiah muttered an inaudible curse and ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it back again.
"Did you see them?" Ethan asked. "The little protrusions?"
"We are going to pretend that this hallway is protected with motion-detecting sensors," Ethan said, with a faint smile. "I can't justify springing for real ones, so what I have instead are lengths of fishing line strung across the hallway on suction cups. I assure you that should you 'break' a beam, you'll notice."
Jeremiah glanced off down the hallway, then looked back at Ethan. "All right," he said dubiously.
"I want you to touch the door at the far end of the hallway in thirty seconds," Ethan said, producing his stop-watch. "Without breaking a single beam." Jeremiah opened his mouth, probably to agree, but Ethan forestalled it by pushing at Jeremiah's shoulder. "Go."
With a startled yelp Jeremiah erupted from his crouch, scrambling on all fours. In Bran's opinion Jeremiah evaded the first wire mostly by luck, yelping again, jerking backwards, then dropping onto his belly and wriggling under it, only to pop to his feet on the far side. He jumped over the second wire, ducked under the third, wiggled between the fourth and fifth, and promptly got his big stupid feet tangled in the sixth. The suction cups popped away from the wall as the fishing line tangled itself about his ankles. Jeremiah made a noise not unlike a startled duck and went down, taking out another two wires as he fell. For a moment, everything was silent. "Aow," Jeremiah finally said, in a clumsy tangle of limbs on the floor about three metres away. Bran sniggered.
"Well, that was, frankly, better than I was expecting," Ethan said, pausing the stop-watch. "Of course, they won't trip you in reality, only set off alarms and such, but we do the best we can."
Jeremiah rose warily to his feet, one hand lifted to ward off any stray wires. "I can do better'n"
"better than that." Jeremiah flushed a little. "I can do better than that."
"I'm glad. Let's find out. Do you see the marks on the wall? Reattach the cups there, please."
Untangling the length of fishing line from his ankle, Jeremiah put it back in place. Once all three wires had been returned to their positions Jeremiah came back, moving slowly to avoid tripping over anything else. He crouched back down next to Ethan, scrubbing his fingers through his hair again.
"Go," said Ethan, and Jeremiah burst forward again, this time making it almost a fourth of the way down the hall before neatly clotheslining himself on a high wire. The resulting choking sound made Bran snigger again.
The kitchen table was covered in heavy canvas and strewn from end to end with disassembled hardware, door-less knobs and locks of all shapes and sizes. Bran curled his lip at them. He'd graduated from the basic kit years ago, but Ethan had dug them out of storage and laid them out in front of a saucer-eyed Jeremiah, who was all but rubbing his hands together in gleeto a street rat like Jeremiah, the ability to pick locks must have looked like a winning lottery ticket. To Bran, it looked like giving a toddler a weapon, but of course no one gave a damn what he thought about it.
Ethan and Jeremiah had their heads together over one of the simpler door-knobs, Ethan wielding a pair of basic picks. His voice was a soft, low, comforting drone over the click and rattle of the picks. When at last he twisted his hands and the lock popped up, Jeremiah made a single, deeply startled sound of appreciation. "Wicked," he said, craning like he might somehow see into the key-hole.
Ethan handed him the two picks and picked up the knob. "Let's see how you do, then," Ethan said, re-setting the lock and putting it down on the table in front of Jeremiah. Jeremiah nodded and gingerly poked the torsion wrench into the lock, shifting the half-diamond rake in his fingers; by the time Ethan put his hands over Jeremiah's, Bran had had enough, and he carried his glass of water up to his room, instead.
After the usual pause, the muffled "... aow." drifted back down the hallway towards them. "He's doing better," Ethan observed, halting the stop-watch.
"He's only learning the pattern," Bran said. Halfway down the hall Jeremiah rose gingerly to his knees, hit his head on a low wire, and ducked again, swatting uselessly at the suction cups that popped off the walls and swung down to bounce off his cheeks. Bran snickered again.
Ethan frowned at the stop-watch, then reset it. "Be that as it may, it's certainly a step in the right direction."
"Aye, well, won't he get a shock when you move all the wires about!" Bran settled back against the door, grinning. "Wouldn't miss that for the bloody world, I wouldn't."
Jeremiah finished replacing the suction cups and gingerly picked his way back towards them, wincing away from the taut fishing lines with a hand raised for protection. "Aaw, now how'm I s'posed to work that one?" he cried, exercised. "There's three bloody wires one on top of the other, there are! Comes up to my waist!"
Instead of replying to Jeremiah (or remonstrating with him about his speech) Ethan glanced back at Bran. "Bran? Would you care to show him?"
"What?" Bran said, startled. "Well... aye, sure, if that's what you want." He rose uncertainly to his feet and bent back down, stretching out the long muscles of his legs. Jeremiah finished picking his way back to their end of the hallway, eyed Bran in confusion for a moment, then dropped onto his arse next to Ethan with a huge whoofing sigh.
"Thirty seconds, Bran," Ethan said pleasantly.
"Aye, aye," said Bran. "Not like thirty seconds is bloody well possible, we all know that."
"It isn't?" Jeremiah said, startled. "Seems like it ought to be."
Ethan shrugged, grandly, as Bran stepped past Jeremiah and into place. "Anything is possible," he said. "Ready, Bran?"
Bran dropped into his own crouch. "When you are."
"Go," Ethan said, swatting Bran's shoulder. Bran broke for the first wire, eeling under it without stopping, picking up some light rug burn on the palms of his hands and not caring. The trick was to pick a wall and watch it, Bran had discovered. Trying to see the fishing line in the low light was a fool's game; better to look for the suction cups, small as they were. Jeremiah's presenceand Ethan'sfaded to the back of Bran's mind, as did his time limit. All that mattered was the hallway, and getting through it perfectly on the first try
The waist-high wall of three wires that had stymied Jeremiah loomed in front of Bran, and without stopping he dove headfirst over them, throwing out his hands to catch himself on the far side. His feet slammed against the walls to either side, rubber squeaking against plaster as he put on the brakes; once he'd come to a stop Bran flipped forward, dropped into a crouch, and ducked under the next wire. Jeremiah made a sound of some sort from behind him. Bran barely heard it.
He vaulted the last wire and slapped his hand against the door at the far end of the house, breathing a little hard. "Time!" he cried.
"Forty-one seconds, very good," Ethan called back.
"Here, that's never fair!" Jeremiah said, aggrieved. "I can go on my hands? You never said!"
Bran sniggered and started picking his way back, shaking his rug-burned hands to ease off on the sting. "Course it's fair, you little wanker," he said, maybe loudly enough for Jeremiah to hear, maybe not.
"Of course it's fair," Ethan said, like a friendlier echo. "There aren't any rules here beyond 'don't break the beams' and 'cross in thirty seconds or less'. It isn't a game, no matter how much it might resemble one."
"Butbut!" Jeremiah subsided, scowling.
Ethan's hands hovered next to Jeremiah's hips, ready to catch him if he should fall. Jeremiah was so short that he'd needed a boost just to grab on to the pull-up bar, which had amused Bran no end. For his part Bran was showing off on the rings, really enjoying himself, partly because they were so easy for him now and partly because Jeremiah kept forgetting that he was supposed to be doing pull-ups in order to stare open-mouthed at Bran as Bran flew. "Do we need to turn you about so that Bran can't distract you?" Ethan finally suggested, mildly exasperated.
"I'm on it!" Jeremiah said, blinking and jerking himself upwards once more. He did pull-ups in a jerky, flailing, kicking fashion, despite Ethan's remonstrancesright now it was impressive enough that Jeremiah could do ten in a row, his little pebbley biceps flexing.
Jeremiah flung himself under the last wire, rolling on his back. He hopped to his feet and slapped the door, his crow of victory echoing down the hall. "Done it!" he cried.
"Yes, very good!" Ethan called back, checking the stop-watch. "Sixty-eight seconds."
"You'll get better," Ethan said patiently. "It's only a matter of practise."
Supposedly Bran was doing reps with the dumb-bells, but in reality he was fooling around with the weights and watching Jeremiah and Ethan in the room's long mirror. Ethan was kneeling on the mats, holding Jeremiah's feet as Jeremiah struggled through yet another endless series of crunchesit made Bran's own stomach muscles twinge in sympathy.
Jeremiah had long since gone past panting and somewhere into wheezing out hoarse little shouts by the time that Ethan said "... one hundred nineteen, one hundred twenty, stop." Jeremiah's back hit the mats so hard that it jarred the breath out of him in one sharp bark, and then he was still, sprawled out, shiny with sweat, his chest heaving. Bran rolled his eyes and settled back into the long series of bicep curls.
"Difficult, isn't it?" Ethan said, with another of his small smiles. Now that Jeremiah was at a standstill Ethan settled back, his hands on his thighs. "I'm afraid that's just how it must be. You'd be surprised how much strength you'll need in your stomach muscles just to use the cups."
"There isn't a bloody muscle I won't be using," Jeremiah muttered.
"Well, there is that," Ethan said, unmoved.
Jeremiah struggled up into a sitting position, not without some effort, and jerked his sodden t-shirt off over his head. Bran's bicep curls slowed, just a bit. The half-starved waif was only an echo now. Jeremiah didn't have a tenth of the muscle Bran did, but he had the beginnings of it, mostly in his shoulders and arms. His stomach was still smooth and looked soft, but at least the bruises and virulent pink lesions had healed and vanished. The last of the grime was long since gone, and his hair had grown long enough to need another trimBran twitched his eyes away and focused his attention back on the dumb-bells.
"Speed-ball next, I think, Bran," Ethan called.
"Right, right," Bran muttered, dropping the dumb-bells back into the rack with a clang.
"Fifty-four seconds, well done."
"Aaw, but it feels so weird," Jeremiah said, poking gingerly at his squishy blindfold. Neat turns of white cloth bandage swaddled the top of his head all the way down to the tip of his nose; there was an odd bulge underneath, which Bran knew from experience to be a double handful of raw bread dough pressed heavily over Jeremiah's eyes. "Smells weird, too."
"Unorthodox, I'll admit, but there's nothing better for a thorough blindfold," Ethan said, unrepentant.
"Too right!" Jeremiah said. His hands fell away from his blindfold and patted nervously over the kitchen counter.
Ethan watched him explore for a moment, then jabbed two fingers at Jeremiah's face. Jeremiah, blinded, didn't so much as flinch; Ethan nodded. Jeremiah frowned a moment later, turning his head from side to side. "Here, was that you?"
"Was what me?" Ethan said, raising an eyebrow.
"Felt something, like. Little breeze or some... something."
"Did you? Well done, then. You'll want to pay attention to small things like that." Ethan closed the oven doorno sense in making bread dough without making bread from some of it, he always saidand leaned against the counter. "Very well, then. Go on up to my room and fetch me down a hammer from the workbench. Do try not to hurt yourself. Or make too much of a mess."
Jeremiah followed the edge of the counter along, inching towards where he knew the kitchen door to be. Bran briefly entertained the idea of tripping him; as if he could hear Bran's thoughts, Jeremiah turned his bandaged face vaguely in Bran's direction, frowning.
Ethan clicked the stop-watch. "Fifty seconds, again."
"Aaw, hell!" Jeremiah scrubbed his fingers through his limp hair.
"Je parle, tu parles, il/elle parle," Ethan recited, drawing his finger down the small, printed chart in the French textbook. Jeremiah wrinkled his nose, crunching his eyes shut in concentration as Ethan went on, "Nous parlons, vous parlez, ils/elles parlent."
"Fat lot of good that does me, all that parling," Jeremiah said, dropping down in his chair until he could rest his chin on the table.
Ethan flipped the book closed, one finger marking their place. "Go on."
Jeremiah winced, then screwed up his face with the effort. "Je..."
"Je parle," Ethan prompted.
"Je parle," Jeremiah repeated, relieved. "Tu... tu..."
"Tu parles. With the 's'."
"Aaaw," Jeremiah said, digging his fingers into his hair.
Bran snorted. "Il ne parle pas," he said, to everyone and no one. "Il ne parlera jamais."
It earned him a uncomprehending scowl from Jeremiah, nothing more. "Bran," said Ethan, and Bran sighed and left them to it.
At the far end of the hall Jeremiah drummed his feet against the floor, yelling incoherently in rage.
"Whenever you're ready: again."
Jeremiah huffed out a breath, hunched his narrow shoulders, and darted forward, to the attack. He hadn't actually managed to hit Ethan anywhere important yet, but that was all right, as it was fun to watch Ethan knock Jeremiah onto his arse over and over. The current bout went on for about ten seconds before the heel of Ethan's hand caught Jeremiah under the chin and nearly lifted him off his feet before dumping him flat on his back on the mats; Bran sniggered and inched out along the ceiling, his head spinning with the height.
Jeremiah's eyes flew open and met Bran's, five metres away, straight up. "When do I get to try those?" Jeremiah asked, stabbing a finger up at Bran instead of getting up. Bran had to look back at his hands before his vertigo got the best of him.
"The cups?" Ethan said. "When you've put on a bit more muscle. The cups require an immense amount of strength."
"But when?" Jeremiah asked.
Ethan thought about it. "When you've hit ten stone," he finally said. "You can try it then."
"Right," Jeremiah said, bouncing to his feet. "I'll hold you to that."
"Do so," Ethan said. Bran could hear the smile, even from here. "Come at me again, if you're quite done procrastinating."
"... forty-eight seconds. Well done."
"I think it's a bit easier, done up this way," Jeremiah said, catching his breath. "The middle bit's not so crowded, like."
Ethan raised his eyebrows. "I could always add a few...?"
Bran snorted, but Jeremiah, after some thought, nodded. "You're only going easy on me."
"I wasn't going easy on you, Jeremiah."
"You were so," Bran said under his breath. Ethan glanced back at him, then looked away without saying a word.
The drone of a news programme on Radio 4 greeted a sleepy Bran in the doorway, unusual enough to make him stop and try to think. Had something happened...? It didn't seem likely, though. Ethan and Jeremiah had their heads together over part of the lock kitthe little electronic keypadand were paying more attention to it than to the broadcast. "Good morning, Bran," Ethan said, pleasant but distracted, as he always was these days.
"Morning," Bran said, scuffing towards the toaster. It was about as complicated a device as he felt capable of working, this early in the morning. Behind him the little keypad made its quiet electronic noises, almost lost under the sound of the radio. Bran's interest in current events ended more or less at the front door. He ignored the radio as best he could.
He only picked up on the third and last sound when he drifted too close by the table: Jeremiah, mouthing along with the BBC announcer, repeating the plush words in a breathy silence. "Oh," Bran said. "Workin' on his accent, then."
"Yes, very good," Ethan said, still mostly absent from the conversation.
"I'm supposed to sound all posh, like," said Jeremiah, proving that, at this point in time at least, he was failing.
Ethan blinked, then smiled a bit. "Well, yes, but that isn't the whole point. Consider the BBC to be our ambassador to the world: people from other countries want to believe the British sound like BBC announcers." Bran could almost repeat the next part along with Ethan: "In this business, so much is about showing people exactly what they're predisposed to believe already."
"Pretending," said Jeremiah.
"Pretending," Ethan agreed. "Exactly right. Most of the time, your job is to pretend to be someone else."
"Anyone else would be better," Bran said.
Jeremiah snickered and threw a half-diamond pick at him, which Bran caught and pegged back, bouncing it off the top of Jeremiah's head. "Aow!" Jeremiah said, both hands flying up in belated protection.
"There, see, I beat it!" Jeremiah crowed, bouncing to his feet at the far end of the hall. "I haven't beat fifty in for-bloody-ever and I've done it now!"
"Yes, indeed, well done!" Ethan called back.
Ethan and Bran swung back and forth across the mats, striking, blocking, and counter-striking, and Bran was definitely getting the worst of it. Not that he'd expected any differenteven now Ethan could hand him his arse without much trouble at allbut the whole thing was made much more difficult by Jeremiah's half-wide-eyed stare. Jeremiah was curled up against the wall, hugging his upraised knees and nursing what would probably develop into a lovely mouse under his left eye (points for ingenuity, but one's face should generally not be used to catch an elbow, Jeremiah, as Ethan had said) so while his right eye was wide with awe and fascination, his left eye was half-shut and rapidly reddening.
The stare kept plucking at the edges of Bran's attention. Time and again Ethan sat him neatly on the mats half a second after Bran's gaze had raked across Jeremiah's. The only real consolation was that Jeremiah was so blatantly, patently awed. "Wicked," he breathed.
"How is the eye?" Ethan asked in a conversational tone of voice, snatching Bran's wrist out of the air and jerking it forward. Bran took one huge, drunken step forward, fell over Ethan's outstretched leg, and hit the mat, already rolling away.
"Doesn't hurt a bit," Jeremiah said defiantly. "Bit hard to open, though."
"I imagine so." Bran darted in and Ethan rolled into his approach, putting an elbow in Bran's stomach. Bran whoofed out a thick breath and staggered back, folding nearly in half to avoid the follow-through strike. Ethan dropped back a space, entirely unruffled. "Sing out if you start having trouble seeing."
"Time," Bran said, half-coughing it.
"Time," Ethan agreed, pausing before dropping his guard. The moment it fell Bran yanked his t-shirt off over his head, desperate for a bit of cool air. The shirt was sodden but still he scrubbed his face with it, then tossed it in Jeremiah's general direction, where it would be out of the way.
"You're all red, like," Jeremiah said.
Bran swung around, his mouth open to deliver some kind of retort that never came. Jeremiah's awed look was gone; his smile was closer to a smirk, all twisted in on itself. It was an oddly adult expression, only slightly marred by the tipsy-looking odd eyes, and Bran found himself suddenly a bit too aware of almost everything. "'S called 'exertion', maybe you ought to fuckin' try it," Bran finally said, turning away.
Jeremiah's laugh was equally odd. "You think I don't exert myself, maybe you ought to pay attention, like."
I do, Bran thought, but fortunately he managed not to say it.
Ethan's own smile was faint. "If your eye doesn't hurt, Jeremiah, then perhaps you'd be so good as to indulge me in a few stomach crunches?"
"Aaaw!" Jeremiah said, although he clambered to his feet readily enough. "Changed my mind, hurts like mad!"
"Forty-eight seconds, very good."
Bran was scowling at his history text and willing it to die in a fire when the door to his room creaked open. "Fuck off," Bran said, without looking up.
After a moment of startled hesitation, Jeremiah knocked on the already-open door anyway. "Here, Bran?"
"Oh, for God's bleedin' sake. What?"
"Can I come read in here?" Jeremiah asked, absently twisting the door-knob back and forth. The plea on his face was naked. "Only it's too quiet in my room, like, and you've got your music on, and all." He hesitated. "I like your music. S'good, like."
Bran stared at the apparition for a long moment, while he tried to decide if he'd actually heard that. "Are you stupid? No! Fuck off, I don't want you about!"
"Aaw! Come on," said Jeremiah, his face screwing up into a defensive wince. "I'll be quiet, swear"
Bran's hurtling history text smacked into the wall next to him, spewing pages everywhere as the abused spine gave up the ghost. Jeremiah ducked back out into the hallway with alacrity. "Fine!" he shouted, hurt. "You be that way, then!"
The pommel horse sat in the middle of the mats, huge and heavy, leaving deep dents in the mats where it stood. Jeremiah circled it warily, slapping the leather of the horse's body, testing the grips, eventually slinging a leg over it and clambering up to sit on one end. "So it's a horse, then," he said, kicking his feet. "Bet it doesn't do much when you tell it to gee up."
"No, not really," Ethan said, ignoring the weak joke. "Here, hop down." Jeremiah obligingly jumped back down.
Bran finished dusting his taped hands, already smarting. Jeremiah's reaction to his gymnast's unitard had been... mixed, really. The laughter had been bad enough, but the second or two of unabashed, amazed staring had been worse, somehow. "Ready," Bran said, brushing his hands together.
"Whenever you're ready, Bran," Ethan said, catching Jeremiah's shoulder and drawing him back a few steps.
The horse had never been Bran's strongest event, but he'd always found the rhythm of it soothing. He stepped forward, then broke into a run, catching the grips on the fly and vaulting aboard (and how long had it taken him to learn how to do that without losing his momentum?). For a moment it felt amazing, all that momentum under his control, almost like flyingthen the burning ache introduced itself, spreading across his shoulders and out in a wide band about his midsection, as he paid the price in strength for his motion. Bran gritted his teeth and kept going.
Off to one side he could hear Ethan and Jeremiah, but for the most part all Bran could hear was the slap of his own hands and the hissing of his strangled, heavy breathing; it wasn't until Ethan raised his voice and said, "Bran, that'll do!" that Bran came back to himself. He dismounted with as much grace as he could (more than usual, but not much) and shook out his arms, nearly groaning as the strain lifted away from his shoulders.
Ethan looked back at Jeremiah. "Do you want to give it a go?"
"We-ell..." Jeremiah gave the horse a jaundiced look, his jaw working. "Haven't got a fancy suit, have I, or tape on my hands, like Bran does."
"I think that, for your first try, you won't need these things," Ethan said, as diplomatically as possible. Bran tried not to snicker. "Just go and touch the rosin bag first, that ought to do."
Jeremiah glanced back and forth, from Bran to Ethan, a little frown on his faceby now he had a good idea of when he was being laughed atand then trotted over, patting at the bag and sending up a little cloud of white dust. Dusting his hands together in imitation of Bran, he frowned at the horse, spent a few seconds carefully lining himself up with it, and then broke for the line.
He didn't smack belly-first into the horse and spew sick everywhere, which was what Bran had been expecting (and rather hoping for, really). Jeremiah was just barely tall enough to grab the grips, but he caught them on the first try, vaulting upwards with more momentum than controlinstinctively he threw his weight to the left and let go with his right hand just in time for his legs to fly under, but then his excess of momentum caught up with him and he went sailing off the far side of the horse, ripping his left hand from its grip. He landed in a flailing tumble of limbs on the mats and rolled. A second or two after the careening Jeremiah came to a halt, he issued the customary "... aaaow."
"Nice," Bran said, rolling his eyes. "Be a bloody Olympic hopeful in no time, he will."
"Better than my first try, at any rate," Ethan said, trotting over to help Jeremiah up. "I seem to recall bashing my knee on a grip and having to sit out with a knee the size of a grapefruit for the rest of the day." He didn't say anything about Bran's first try (which had involved a fair amount of sick, actually) but, a fuming Bran supposed, he didn't really need to.
Jeremiah staggered to his feet. He eyed the horse with misgiving, then went over and grabbed the grips, heaving himself up from a standing start and landing on his knees in the middle. "Huh," he said, and jumped back down.
An hour later Jeremiah managed to complete two entire revolutions before his degrading, spiralling momentum flung him sideways off the horse and slid him straight into one of the mirrors, which didn't break but did jump and slide sideways off its moorings. After that, Ethan called a halt for the day. "We'll get you fitted for a unitard soon," he said, patting Jeremiah's shoulder.
"... forty-six seconds."
"That's enough for today," Ethan finally said, running a hand over his face and dashing away the light sweat he'd worked up. "Go and wash up for supper."
Jeremiah scrambled for his discarded shirt, still all red in the face and gasping. He had a couple of fat bruises on his rib-cage, purplish, in contrast to the yellowed remains of the mouse under his left eye; an older bruise on the outside of his calf was entering the green-and-brown phase. Bran was nursing a bruise or two himself, but nothing like the rainbow of Jeremiah.
The rink was a private one, mainly for Olympic hopefuls and rich brats taking private lessons. Bran had no idea whose arm Ethan had twisted to get access, but he'd got it, all right. Olympic figure skaters trained at arse o'clock in the morning, and richies had their lessons after classes were over for the day; at one in the afternoon they were the only people there, and the vast barn-like structure was so empty that it echoed.
Bran finished lacing up his skates. Beside him Ethan was helping Jeremiah get his skates on. Sometimes it amazed Bran that Jeremiah could tie his shoes at all without Ethan there to help him. It wasn't fair to think thatthere was a trick to lacing up your skates properlybut still, Bran had had the thought, and felt better for having had it. "Here, can I go?" he asked, kicking idly at the low concrete wall with the blade of his skate. "You don't need me about for this."
"Yes, Bran, go on," Ethan said, distracted by Jeremiah as ever. Bran huffed out an annoyed breath and clattered out onto the ice. The rising cold slapped him in the face and made his nose go red and runny on the instant, but five seconds later Bran was three-quarters of the way down the ice, and Ethan's voice (and Jeremiah's) faded out to nothing.
He liked the occasional bouts of skating, it wasn't that. It got him out of the house, for one. For another, for all that Ethan might prattle on about it teaching balance and high-speed decision-making, it didn't feel like yet another lesson. The zipping about was fun, and a lot of the fancier stuff was almost instinctual now, which felt good. Bran was always impressed with himself after a skating session.
A yelp from the far end of the rink caught Bran's attention, and he glided around in a neat circle just in time to see a flailing Jeremiah fall flat on his arse on the ice not five feet from the starting gate. Ethan coasted over to Jeremiah and offered him a hand upBran couldn't see Ethan's face from here, but he could imagine it well enough. Jeremiah grabbed Ethan's arm and struggled gamely to his feet again. Bran snorted to himself and kicked up a bit of speed, bringing himself in closer.
Once Ethan had Jeremiah gingerly balanced on the blades of his skates, the lesson (such as it was) began. From here Ethan's voice was just a soothing hum in the background, rising and falling and occasionally punctuated by a yelp or a thud; Bran tuned it all out and sank into his own mind, twining a couple of tight figure-eights on the ice before turning his attention to the jumps again. He thought he could feel Jeremiah's eyes on him a couple of times, but he didn't care. Not one bit.
The first hint he had that things weren't going quite right was the rising yell, half panic and half the sheer joy of speed. "aaaaaAAAAAAAAA" and Bran snapped out of his zen-like calm just half a heartbeat before a yelling Jeremiah hurtled straight into him like an out-of-control comet. It was less like being tackled and more like being hit by a very small car. Bran caught Jeremiah in an instinctive bear-hug, his skates clattering frantically on the ice as he staggered backwards, fighting to absorb the blow. He barely had time to realise that he was going to fail before he did. They both went down in a thrashing heap, Jeremiah still yelling, Bran barking out an agonised "Fuck!" that rang off the rafters.
Ethan's skates skidded to a neat stop beside them a few moments later. "I sense that you've got the hang of going very fast, well done," he said dryly, more or less hauling Jeremiah off Bran. "Perhaps next we'll work on stopping?"
Jeremiah's nerved-up laugh revved out of him as Ethan set him back on his feet. "Oof, sorry, Bran," he said, offering Bran a hand up in his turn, like it wouldn't pull Jeremiah straight back off his feet. "Wasn't it brilliant, though!"
"Wasn't," Bran said sullenly, scrambling back to his feet without any aid. "It was stupid, that's what it was."
"Brilliantly stupid," Jeremiah insisted, but his huge grin dimmed a bit, and he allowed Ethan to chivvy him back to the other end of the rink without another word.
"Forty-five seconds, well done, but I'm afraid you tripped a line back at the beginning."
"One hundred and... sixty-three centimetres," Ethan said, making a little mark on the ruler on the door-frame. "You've grown quite a bit in these past three months."
"S'pose it's all the food," Jeremiah said. He gingerly patted the top of his head. "And the exercise and all."
"You've definitely lost that skeletal look, in any case. Well, then. On the scale," Ethan said. Jeremiah jammed his feet into his unlaced trainers and took an eager step towards the scale, but Ethan quelled him with a glance. "Without your shoes, please."
Jeremiah's face creased in a momentary scowl, but he kicked his trainers back off and hopped onto the scale. His fingers hung crossed at his sides. He rolled his weight forward, unsubtly, like he'd weigh more if he pushed all his weight onto the balls of his feet. Ethan stifled a smile. Bran, waiting his turn, only rolled his eyes.
"Sixty-three kilograms," Ethan reported.
Jeremiah sagged in disappointment, then bucked upright and started flapping his hands. "Aaw, come on, it's so bloody close, it's nearly ten stone!"
"We'll see," Ethan said over Jeremiah's continuing objections. "Bran?"
Ignoring Jeremiah Bran settled himself against the ruler, wriggling his shoulders until he stood just so. There must have been hundreds of little pencil marks on the right-hand side of the ruler, ranging back all the way to when he was four; in comparison, there were only four little marks on the left-hand side, evenly spaced at about a centimetre apart. Ethan leaned in and added another mark to the right-hand side. "You've missed one hundred and seventy-three by a hair."
"I've put on lots of muscle," Jeremiah put in, unwilling to let it go. "I'm plenty strong enough to at least try!"
"We'll see, Jeremiah," Ethan said again. "In any case, we've got to see to getting your hair cut this afternoon, so that Teddy can take your picture and finish putting your ID together."
Jeremiah deflated. "Aw." Bran stepped onto the scale; Jeremiah scuffed over to one side and started absently kicking the wall. "What's the ID for, anyhow?"
"Aw..." Jeremiah kicked the wall again while he thought. "Why do I need a school ID?" he finally asked.
"Very good," Ethan said. "Seventy-one and a half kilos, Bran. To answer your question, Jeremiah, you need a school ID because you need an identity." Bran got off the scale and sat on the floor to put his own shoes back on.
"But... I have one," said Jeremiah. After a moment's thought, he added, "Haven't I?"
"Well, yes, but what you actually need in this situation is a different identity. Jeremiah Harbottle is another man's son, and the law states that you belong with him until you reach your majoritywith a new name and identity, we can at least prevent you from being found out and dumped back in your old home."
Jeremiah hunched his shoulders. "Oh," he said. "So... what, I'm to be your son now?"
"Well, no, I can't quite get away with that. I can't simply adopt you legally, as I did with Bran, and to have you just magically appear... well, suffice it to say that it would raise more than a few eyebrows." Ethan frowned. "I've had a few thoughts in that direction, but for the time being... no, not my son."
"Oh," Jeremiah said, looking down at his feet.
"Nephew, possibly." Ethan looked away over Bran's shoulder, deep in thought. "In any case, most likely the son of one of my better-connected alter egos, just in case of emergency."
Jeremiah looked more confused than anything, but eventually, he shrugged. "So... does this mean I've got to have a new name and all?"
"Oh, yes. Be thinking about that. Christian name only, howeveryour last name will have to match one of mine."
A little flicker of hope lit in Jeremiah's eyes. "Never did like my name," he volunteered. "It sounds all grand-fatherly, like."
"Unnecessarily Biblical, yes." Ethan dusted off his hands. "Bran, will you be all right here while I take Jeremiah into town?"
"Aye!" said Bran, startled, his voice cracking. He'd been about two seconds from sneaking out, leaving yet another conversation that didn't have anything to do with him at allhe swallowed and rubbed his hand over his lips. "Uh, aye, sure. I've got to do my maths and all."
Ethan gave him a small and tired smile. "Good, that's good," he said. "I've been neglecting you a bit recently, I'm afraid."
Damned well have, Bran thought. It must have shown on his face, because Ethan's smile shrank to a little twist of itself. Bran cleared his throat and looked away. "S'all right. I don't need my bloody hand held all the time any more, do I?"
"True enough." Ethan patted Bran's shoulder. "You've grown into a fine young man, and a promising thief. Now, it's just a question of honing the skills you already have."
Bran flushed and mumbled something, mostly embarrassed but, deep down, thrilledhe caught himself scuffing his foot against the rug and made himself stop. "So I guess you can hold his hand for a bit. Since he's still bloody useless and all."
"Here!" Jeremiah squawked.
"What?" Bran said, scowling blackly at Jeremiah. "It's bloody well true."
"You didn't have to say it!"
"Why not? Ethan may coddle you but I don't have toI'm surprised you can wipe your own arse!"
"Boys," Ethan said, and they subsided.
"Bran, time," Ethan called, knocking on Bran's door.
Bran glanced up at the clock. Nearly two"Be right down," he called back, marking his place in King Lear with some relief. Shakespeare was a struggle at the best of times; at least you knew where you stood, with gymnastics. Bran dropped his book and swung his legs out of bed, stepping back into his discarded trainers.
The afternoon exercise session always felt better than the morning's. No matter how much sleep he'd had the night before, Bran always felt logy during morning exercises, every step an uphill climb. Ethan believed in a few hours' rest after lunch, though, and for Bran it was just the ticket. Two hours of banging out his school-work was enough to make him long for something more physical to do.
He heard Jeremiah thump by, out in the hallway. Ethan hadn't even begun to teach Jeremiah how to walk properlyhave to learn how to crawl first, wouldn't he?and so Jeremiah went everywhere sounding like fifty kilos of meat falling off the counter. Bran found it offensive, personally, and he made a point of stepping silently down the stairs in Jeremiah's noisy wake.
Jeremiah dropped gracelessly to the mats as soon as he hit them, stretching to grab his toesBran made a point of 'stumbling' over him on his way to the barre. "Aow, here," Jeremiah said, flinging up his arms to protect his head.
"Shouldn't be sitting right bang in the middle of the room, then," Bran told him, feeling much better now. "Might get into someone's way, you might."
"Thought you were s'posed to be some sort of terrific thief, with reflexes and all," Jeremiah shot back. "Wouldn't you be grand at it, all tripping over benches and old ladies' dogs."
"That what you are, then? An old lady's dog?" Bran stretched one leg out along the barre and bent over it, curling his fingers around the arch of his foot. "Nah, couldn't be, could it, not a scraggly mutt like you."
Jeremiah reflexively scraped his fingers through his hair. Truth be told he wasn't all that scruffy at the moment, not with his hair freshly cut, but he was still sensitive about it, a little fact which Bran was not above using to his own advantage. "Bran, bench presses first, I believe," said Ethan, drifting over to where they were. "Then perhaps you'll run through a lower-body workout. I don't think we've properly exercised your legs in a few days."
"Right, right," said Bran, secretly pleased. He enjoyed weight-lifting more than he'd ever expected to.
Ethan gave him an absent little smile and nod, then switched his gaze to Jeremiah, who was flat on his face on the mats with his legs kicked out to either side. "I've given it some thought, Jeremiah," Ethan said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to let you give the cups a try"
Jeremiah went from prone to standing with a single prodigious bound, his face blooming into a huge smile. "Brilliant!"
"but just a try, mind you," Ethan said, raising his voice a little. "They're extremely demanding and I wouldn't like to see you fall because you ran out of energy halfway up the wall. I'll show you how they work and let you try a bit of climbing, but you must come down the instant I say."
"Awright awright," Jeremiah said, bouncing in place.
"Do you promise?"
"Do you promise properly?"
Jeremiah twitched, checked. "Aaw... yes, I promise." Ethan raised an eyebrow, and Jeremiah ducked his head and added, "I promise to come down the instant you say."
"Better," Ethan said. Bran only snorted and switched legs on the barre, watching the conversation in the mirror for lack of anything better to look at. Ethan produced one of the large black cups, balanced on the palms of his hands. "This is a hand cup," he said. "You hold this handle, here" he demonstrated "and press down with your knuckles against this part of the handle to press the air out of the cup."
"He knows that much," Bran muttered, not quite loudly enough to catch anyone's attention.
"To release the air and move the cup, you use your thumb to press this button, here," Ethan said, pressing it a few times. "You mustn't reach too far or you won't have enough leverage to press out the air."
Jeremiah took the cup and made a show of fitting his hand to the handle and working the button. "Seems easy enough," he said, puffing with bravado.
"On its own, yes. But when you're working with four of them and shepherding your strength, perhaps not as simple as it might seem," said Ethan. He fetched a second cup from where it dangled off his arm. "Now, this is a leg cup. It straps onto your leg just below the knee, as you've seen. To fasten the cup, you push down with your knee; to release it again, you press your knee out against this lever bit. You'll see the sense of it soon enough."
Jeremiah plucked the leg cup from Ethan's hands and picked gingerly at the straps. "Awrall right," he said.
Ethan held up three fingers. "There are three rules to using the cups: take your time, move in small increments, and never let yourself hang head-down for more than a second or two. If you're on the ceiling or some such, keep your head up and your chin tucked against your chest, except for when you absolutely need to look down. Never go down a wall head-first. Go down backwards, like climbing down a ladder."
Dropping back onto the mats Jeremiah fitted the leg cup to his leg, settling the release lever against the top of his knee. The strap that fitted Bran perfectly was absurdly loose on Jeremiah's little stick leg; Ethan dropped to one knee and showed Jeremiah how to adjust the straps, then watched as Jeremiah fitted the other leg cup. "What about the ceiling?" Jeremiah asked, looking up. "Only it takes Bran a long time to get onto it, and all."
"It's bloody difficult, you arse," Bran snapped.
"You won't be doing the ceiling today in any case," Ethan said, intervening. "It is more difficult than it looks, and dangerous to boot. You'll need to practise on the wall several times before I'll even consider letting you try to do the wall-ceiling shift." He handed Jeremiah the second hand cup. "Come on over to the wall, and I'll show you how it's done."
Jeremiah trotted behind Ethan, the huge suction cups bobbling ridiculously from his knees as he went. Bran followed, curious. "Go ahead and attach one of the hand cups," Ethan said, tapping the wall at Jeremiah's chest height. "Just to see how it works."
Jeremiah nodded and drove his fist into the wall in slow motion; the suction cup dented before suddenly belching out air with a loud farting noise, which startled a nervous giggle out of Jeremiah. His knobby wrist worked as he pressed the button and made the suction cup come away with the familiar thop. "Again," Ethan said, and Jeremiah bit his lower lip and punched the wall with more authority; this time the cup grabbed the wall with the equally-familiar whock.
"Very good," Ethan said. "Now release it and attach it at about eye-height." He tapped the wall in illustration. Jeremiah released the cup (thop) and reached up to punch the wall again (whock). Ethan nodded. "Now the other one, not too close." Whock. "There we are. Now, if you use those to keep your balance, you can bring up your knee and get that one on."
The leg cups were always harder, as Bran well knew, and Jeremiah had to fight against it for a minute or two before he got the trick of rolling his hip into it. The cup connected with a sullen blurp and Jeremiah stuttered out another of those revved-up nervous giggles, balanced on one foot with his other limbs all hung from the wall. Ethan nodded approvingly. "Go ahead and do the last," he said.
Jeremiah shifted his weight to his arms, edged back, lifted his foot, and swung forward again like he was Tarzan come to knee some poor ape in the groin; the last cup sucked onto the wall with a whuck-fffff sound, as Jeremiah forced the last of its air out by main strength. He hung there barely half a metre off the mats, kneeling on the wall with his arms up over his head and his arse poking out, laughing madly at Ethan's midsection. The noise of it echoed off the gym's high ceiling.
"Yes, very good," Ethan said, raising his voice to be heard over the echoes. "Now raise up onto your knees, release a hand cup, and move it up" thop, whock "now the other" thop, whock "now shift your weight onto your arms and swing your leg out and up" thop... whufffff "now the other" thop... whunk "and there, congratulations, now you've done it," Ethan concluded, just barely smiling. "Go ahead and go up a bit more, but not too far"
Jeremiah's crow of joy drowned out the last of Ethan's little reminder. He lunged up onto his knees, his wrist already working, his skinny arm punching upwards to land the cup with a whock, the second hand cup releasing just a fraction of a second behind the first one's reattachment. "Jeremiah, not too fast," Ethan cautioned, but Jeremiah was somewhere beyond listening now. He swarmed up the wall like a farting ant. Ethan automatically checked his watch even as he called after Jeremiah"Jeremiah, that's enough, don't overdo!"but in less time than Bran had thought possible Jeremiah was halfway up, his manic giggles drowning out both Ethan and the sound of the cups.
Ethan's voice went sharp. "Jeremiah, not the ceiling!"
If Jeremiah heard the directive, though, he ignored it, swinging enthusiastically ever upwards. "Aaw, Christ, he's bloody well going to fall," Bran groaned, skipping a step back to avoid being crushed. "I'll go and get another mat"
"Yes, go, go," Ethan said, waving at Bran without taking his eyes on Jeremiah. "Hurry. Jeremiah! Come back down this instant, I don't want you hurting yourself!"
Bran raced over to the high pile of extra mats and dragged the topmost one off the stack, lugging it after him. Ethan grabbed the other end and together they pushed it up against the wall under Jeremiah, who was rocking back and forth, trying to figure out the right way to shift himself onto the ceiling. Bran barely had time to fetch a second mat before Jeremiah lungednot up, but sideways. "What in hell is he doing?" Bran said. "Going for the corner? That's no bloody good..."
"No," Ethan said, frowning. He'd given up calling Jeremiah's name, probably worried that Jeremiah would get distracted and fall. "No, I don't think so."
Once Jeremiah had himself running parallel to the ceiling, he paused, but only for a second. Then one of the hand cups stabbed up and attached itself"Jeremiah," Ethan said, plaintive but soft.
Jeremiah ignored him, or didn't hear him, or something, just freed one leg and kneed the ceiling. Bran caught himself an instant before his mouth could drop open. "Bloody hell, why didn't I think of that," he said meditatively, as Jeremiah strung himself sideways along the join between wall and ceiling, then shifted his second hand cup, then his second knee cup
Still laughing like a loon Jeremiah swung out along the ceiling, dropping his head to look where he was going, craning updownto stare at the floor, then remembering Ethan's edict and pulling his head up again. Ethan and Bran raced along underneath him, heads craned back to watch his rapid progress, dragging the little stack of mats behind them, just in case. He'd still hurt himself if he fell from this height, but perhaps the mats would keep the little idiot out of hospital.
Jeremiah got a good third of the way across the ceiling before his swinging forward progress began to falter. "Ooer," he said, rocking to a halt. His skinny arms were quivering. "I'm not... I don't... I don't know that I can go much farther." His voice shook, too.
"Hold on," Ethan said, his voice controlled, brittle, and overly bright. "Don't try to move any more, just hang there." His eyes snapped to Bran. "Bran, help me move the mats."
"Aye," Bran said, something like fear kindling in his stomach. If Jeremiah fell, he'd break something like as not, there'd be screaming and blood... Bran dropped his end of the current pile and ran for the rest, Ethan on his heels.
"That's why you've got to pace yourself," Ethan said, raising his voice to help it carry, still sounding a bit sharp from nerves. "You can't precisely stop and rest in the middle." He and Bran seized opposite ends of a mat and dragged it over, adding it to the pile.
Up on the ceiling Jeremiah threaded one shaking arm through the hand-grip of a cup, hooking his elbow into it. A quick puff of nervous breath and he did the same with his other arm, turtling up on the ceiling, lacing his freed hands together behind his head. "Yes, good," Ethan called, lugging over another mat. "Just hold on."
"Aye, hang about," Bran muttered. Together he and Ethan built an untidy stack of mats nearly two metres high underneath Jeremiah. He'd still have to fall about three metres, which he'd probably survive, with some luck.
Ethan rocked to a stop, swallowed a deep breath, and blew it back out. "All right," he said, calm as anything. "I suppose this is as good a time as any to start teaching you how to fall correctly. I hadn't meant to start you so quickly, but..." He shrugged. Bran fell back a couple of steps, still staring up at the turtled-up Jeremiah.
"Right," Jeremiah said weakly. "I'm all ears, me."
"When I tell you to, I want you to disengage both knee cups and let your legs down," Ethan said. "The sudden shift in weight may pop the hand cups, or you may lose your grip. That's fine. Leave them there if need be. I can fetch them later."
Jeremiah swallowed. "Awright."
"The trick to falling is to let yourself go limp. It's very difficult, but you must try. Don't try to land on your feet or to catch yourself with your handstry to land on your side if possible, or on your front if you must. It's dangerous to land on your back, and if you land on your backside, you're liable to break your tailbone."
"All... all right," Jeremiah said. "Limp, got it."
"Can you look down long enough to see the mats?"
Jeremiah glanced out past the bend of his elbow. "I see them!"
"Good. Do try to land there," Ethan said, so dry as to be brittle. He took a step back. "All right. Whenever you're ready, put your hands back on the grips and disengage the knee cups."
For a moment Jeremiah was still, a quivering lump high above their heads. His laced fingers came apart with a little slithering sound; he dragged his right arm free, then his left, putting his weight back in his shaking hands. "Fucking hell," he said, with a little rush, then gingerly broke one leg free and let it drop to dangle. Ethan hissed in a breath, but Jeremiah pressed his toes against the ceiling and managed to pop the other cup without incident. Shaking, he still managed to half-control his fall, gingerly uncurling to hang from his arms, which would go at any second
"Let go if you must," Ethan said sharply.
"I got it, me," Jeremiah said, working the button to free the left cup. It came away with a sharp, agonised thop! and Jeremiah tossed it away from himself to land on the mats ten feet away, now just barely dangling from the fingers of his right hand"Jeremiah!" Ethan said, his voice cracking, just as Jeremiah flailed above his head with his numbed left hand and managed to hit the button on the last cup.
The actual fall was the space of a moment, a halfway-limp Jeremiah crashing onto the mats with a booming thump and an awful finality. He'd managed to land on his side, at least, but one arm had been fallen down against his rib-cage and he'd landed on it, driving his elbow up into his ribs; he brayed out an awful, choking "Waaaugh!" sound and instinctively jerked up into a huddled ball.
"Hold still!" Ethan snapped, darting in to grab Jeremiah and pat him down. "Where are you hurt? Is anything broken?"
"Don't think so," Jeremiah gasped, the last cup falling from his nerveless fingers. His eyes were wide and watering, and the grin that was frozen on his face was a mad and terrified rictus, bearing only a trace of his earlier lunatic joybut a trace that was still there.
Ethan clicked the stop-watch and sighed noiselessly to himself. "Fifty-one seconds, Jeremiah."
"What? Come on, it was never that slow!"
"Well, you did fall from the ceiling yesterday. I imagine you're a bit sore."
The rest of Jeremiah's complaint vented itself as an inarticulate squeal of frustration.
Or just make me not care, Bran prayed, his hands clasped white-knuckle tight on the railing, his eyes screwed shut. A fusillade of coughs ripped through the near-silence of the church and faded away. That'd be plenty, just help me not to care, if I don't care then it'll all go better, please, God...