Shadow of the Templar: Cuckoo's Egg, Extended Edition: Chapter Four
On timeline: early to mid-1990s, ten to fifteen years before the events of the books
When the cleaning service was about, of course, they had to put everything away and pretend to be ordinary. It was one of Bran's favourite parts of the week, if he were to be honest about it: two solid hours of unsupervised free time. Ethan generally turfed them out of doors, to boot, so Bran enjoyed something like real freedom. All he had to do was ditch the tag-a-long, and by now, he knew just how. "I'm goin' for a run," Bran announced, as soon as the door shut behind them.
Jeremiah looked torn, but in the end, he sighed and made a face. "Why d'you want to have more exercise?" he said. "I'll hang about."
Bran snorted and set off down the drive, towards the road. An easy fifteen minutes' jog would take him down to the shops just as the town girls were getting out of class; Bran could feed all his various hungers in under an hour and forget, for a moment, everything else. Jeremiah was always noisily underfoot, bloody useless and absorbing ninety percent of Ethan's attention like a giant, hungry sponge when he wasn't trailing after Bran like a shadow. Bran could only suppose it was like having a little brother, not that he'd ever wanted one, and certainly not a diseased fourteen-year-old street rat. Still, it was cool out and only raining a bit, and Bran couldn't be aggravated for long, particularly not now that he was alone.
By the time he got back, full of fish and chips (which Ethan had half-heartedly forbidden him to eat) and riding high on a brief conversation he'd had with a couple of girls in the shop, it was raining in earnest. Not that Bran cared. He was hot and sweaty, his track suit needed a wash anyway, and he was headed home. He ran down the drive to check the little asphalt lot behind the garage, between the main house and the guest cottageempty, so the cleaning service had finished up and left. Brilliant. Bran needed a shower. He rounded the house, heading for the back door.
He was standing at the back door of the main house, wrestling with the zippered pocket which held his keys, when the front door of the guest cottage creaked open. Bran's head shot up. "Are they gone, then?" Jeremiah called, poking his head out like a turtle coming out of its shell.
"Whatyou're not supposed to bloody well be in there!" Bran said, flabbergasted. "How'd you get in, anyway?"
In answer, Jeremiah gave him a brilliantly toothy grin and held up a small black pouchBran's vision misted over with terrified rage. "You great bloody idiot!" Bran snarled, nearly teleporting the twenty feet down the gravelled path and snatching the pouch of lock-picks from Jeremiah's hand. "What were you doing, standing out here bold as brass picking the lock right in front of the cleaners? Ethan'll have your head! All it would take is one nosey parker and we'll all be nicked" Bran stormed back up the path, the pouch clutched so hard in his hand that he could feel the leather creaking, Jeremiah scrambling on his heels like a worried shadow "he's only told you not to go in there a thousand times, and he's told you not to show off in front of ordinary people twice that! You couldn't bloody listen a bit"
"I didn't!" Jeremiah cried, grabbing for the back of Bran's track suit. His hand slapped uselessly off Bran's back and fell away again. "I didn't either, I went round the back, there's nothing back there but trees and rocks, no one could have seen me!"
"You don't bloody know that!" Bran yelled, nearly falling through the back door now, Jeremiah pawing anxiously at him in his sudden fright. "Ethan! Ethan, are you about, you'll never guess what the little wanker's done now"
Ethan wasn't in the kitchen. Upstairs, thenBran stomped up the stairs, yelling for Ethan, Jeremiah clutching at him like he thought he could physically stop Bran from reporting his trespass. Bran was taller, though, and stronger, and had the advantage of a lot of really good rage, so even wearing a frantic Jeremiah like an anchor couldn't stop him from getting up the stairs. "Ethan!" Bran bayed, again.
Ethan appeared like a ghost in the doorway to his rooms. "Yes?" he said patiently, taking in the tableau with a raised eyebrow.
Bran mashed an elbow into Jeremiah's face and shoved, peeling the smaller boy off himself like so much cling-film. "He was out there picking the lock on the guest cottage door in front of God and everybody"
"the back door!" Jeremiah wailed, on his arse on the hall carpet.
"while the bloody cleaners were about"
"No one saw, I looked about for ages!"
"you told him not to go in there, now he's probably scratched up the lock and mucked everything up"
Jeremiah's voice rose to a thin, insistent squeal. "Didn't!"
"Boys," Ethan said, pinching the bridge of his nose. It was mild enough, but it cut across the ruckus and shut them both up. Mute but victorious, Bran held up the pouch and waggled it, as evidence; after a blackly sullen moment Jeremiah booted him in the ankle, nearly toppling him to the carpet. Bran staggered forward a step, caught himself, and swung about to kick at Jeremiah's ribs, somehow jarring his foot on the point of Jeremiah's hip instead"Boys," Ethan said again, his voice sharper. They both subsided again.
The moment of silence stretched out between them. "I didn't scratch up anything," Jeremiah said, his voice small. "I just wanted to see, like. I didn't even use the loo."
"Bran, please go put the lock-picks back where Jeremiah found them," Ethan said, letting his hand drop. "Jeremiah, I'd like to talk to you, please. In here."
"Me put them back!" Bran said, taken aback. "I didn't do anything"
"I'd appreciate it, Bran," said Ethan, suddenly and abruptly looking his age. "As a personal favour."
Bran hesitated. "Ah, well... right," he said, taking a step backwards. "I'll just go... put these away, then."
"Thank you, Bran," Ethan said. "Jeremiah?"
Jeremiah rose warily to his feet and trudged past Bran, shoulders hunched, arms clamped to his sides. Bran took another step back, then another, then spun about and fled down the back stairs at top speed. The lock-picking kit was stashed away in one of the less obvious drawers in the kitchen, and Bran slapped open the drawer, flung in the picks, and slapped it shut again, already pivoting on the ball of his foot to propel himself towards the door.
He caught himself at the top of the stairs, trading speed for stealth, padding down the hallway as noiselessly as a mouse. "know you're not supposed to go in there," Ethan was saying, just as Bran dropped to one knee and put his ear to the key-hole. "I have told you that."
"Yeah, butyes, but..." Jeremiah's voice trailed off. "I didn't hurt anything. I just had a quick poke 'round, like."
"As I've trained you to do, no doubt."
"Well... well, yeah."
"Jeremiah, I can't say I'm not pleased with your progress, but you know that it's important to me that we be able to trust each other."
Jeremiah made some kind of indistinct sound. To Bran, out in the hallway, he sounded like a dog, whimpering. Probably embarrassmentEthan had a habit of saying horrifying things like that, just blurting them out without any care for people's feelings, and Bran was embarrassed by it even out here. He tried not to squirm. "'M sorry," Jeremiah finally mumbled.
"Apology accepted," Ethan said, and fell silent again. Bran tensed, rising onto the balls of his feet, preparing to flee if necessary. Abruptly, Ethan sighed. "I'm not angry, so you can stop looking quite so much like a whipped dog."
"... you're not gonna throw me out?"
"What?" Ethan said, audibly taken aback. "No, of course not. I didn't make this offer just to rescind it whenever I felt like it."
"Oh," said Jeremiah, sounding dubious. There was a pause. "Honestly, I didn't hurt anything," Jeremiah said, just bursting out with it. "I went 'round back and looked for twenty bloody minutes to make sure nobody could see anything, and then I did it just as you said, the picks and the alligator clips and all, it was cake, and I did it for myself on a real door, like!"
"The alarm didn't give you any trouble?"
"Well, a bit, but it isn't a real Kawa, is it, it's just a plain number pad with a fancy casegave me a scare, though, tell you that!"
Bored now and disappointed, Bran rose to his feet. The chewing out, such as it was, was over, without even any good shoutingthe rest was just shop talk. Bran padded back towards his room, belatedly becoming aware that he was still sweaty and rain-sodden, in need of a shower.
"... and this is Jeremiah," Ethan finished, with a bit of a flourish. "Jeremiah, this is Teddy."
Jeremiah flashed back on his lessons with an effort that was clearly visible to Bran, next to him. "Pleasure to meet you," Jeremiah said, standing up quite straight and holding out his handhe spoiled the effect by rocking out onto the edges of his feet, like an abashed child, but Bran could only suppose it was what Ethan would call 'a step in the right direction'.
Teddy blinked wetly at Jeremiah for a moment, then gingerly shook the outstretched hand. "Pleasure," he said, in that reedy little voice of his, afterwards wiping his limp hand against the front of his jumper. It was with obvious relief that Teddy turned to Ethan. "School ID, then?"
"Nowhere too posh," Ethan agreed. "Nowhere that collects prints, either." His eyes glinted. "Won't let a child of mine attend a school where they take his fingerprints, even if it is just in theory."
"Well, no, of course not," Teddy said, not getting it. "Of course not."
"So, for the surname, at least, your choices are..." Ethan fanned through a pile of red-jacketed passports, frowning. The kitchen table was half-buried in a drift of documents, most of them forgeries of one kind or another. "Thomason, Archer, or Greaves would probably be best, although if you want to be a Governey I won't stop you."
"Mm," Jeremiah said, disinterested. He was resting his chin on the table again, his shoulders hunched. On the other side of the table Bran sat scrawling 'Paul S. Greaves' over and over, accustoming himself to the new name even as he developed his alter ego's signature. Jeremiah watched the pen scratch back and forth, scowling.
Ethan stacked the passports together and deposited the little pile on the kitchen table. "What's wrong?"
"It's only... I won't know what's best until I know what my first name ought to be, right? And I can't think of a bloody thing." Jeremiah folded his arms over his head and shut his eyes. "It all sounds wrong, like. S'why I never"
"ah, that's why I never changed it before. That and I'd always forget what I'd named myself in half an hour."
"Well, that is a problem," Ethan said, frowning slightly. "We can't have you forgetting your own name, can we?"
"S'not my name, though. It's just fake, innit?"
Ethan clasped his hands together on the kitchen table. "No, in point of fact, it isn't. You'll stop being Jeremiah Harbottle entirely. Oh, you'll keep him alivethere's plenty of need for a real, legitimate, non-forged identitybut for all intents and purposes, you're about to become someone else." He paused. "In reality."
"Someone who speaks all pretty and has manners and such, like," Jeremiah said, with a sudden and astonishing amount of bitterness in his voice. "Clean, with nice clothes on all the time."
"Is that a problem?" Ethan asked, quietly.
"Dunno." Jeremiah half-opened his eyes and stared unseeing at Bran's chest. "Feels like it. Like I'm lost inside this... this bugger who's got my face on."
Ethan rubbed a hand down his face. "Mm. Well. Would it help to think of it as acting? You'll always be yourself underneath, and we'll always know that. It's only that you're... showing everyone else a false face, essentially."
"Dunno," Jeremiah said again, despairingly. "No offence meant or nothin', I'm grateful and all, but..."
"I know," said Ethan. "Well. There's no need to decide right this moment, is there?" With a sweep of one arm he gathered up the assorted documents and started filing them away again. "For the time being, let's try teaching you to recall a fake name, shall we? For the rest of the day, your name is... mm... Paul, what should we call him?"
"Muppet," Bran said.
Jeremiah snickered a little. Ethan momentarily shut his eyes in something like pain and dropped the name practise. "Bran..."
"Dimwit?" Bran suggested, twisting the 'S' of his new middle initial into the 'G' of his new last name and deciding that he liked that.
"S'all right," Jeremiah said. "I feel half a dimwit most of the time, you want the truth."
Ethan glanced at Jeremiah, then let it go. "Stephen," he said firmly. "For the rest of the day, your name is Stephen. All right?"
"Right, right," said 'Stephen', sitting up.
"Now, then, to other business." Ethan dropped a handful of passports into their folder. "The tailors will be coming on Friday, to see to Stephen's formal clothesPaul, I think you'd best have a new suit, as well. You've put on a bit of height since last year and I won't have you looking like a gorilla in too-short sleeves."
"Won't have it," Jeremiah mimicked.
Bran rolled his eyes, the pen scratching on. "Be glad when I won't have to have a new one every year."
"So what's it for, anyway?" Jeremiah asked, propping his chin on his hand. "You never said."
"Didn't I?" Ethan paused, looking a bit flummoxed. "How oddit's for the Christmas party, Stephen. I host one every year."
Jeremiah wrinkled his nose. "A fancy party, then."
"Yes, very fancy, and I'll expect you to be on your best behaviour."
"He can answer the door, like, since he's the youngest and all," Bran put in hopefully.
Ethan's answering smile was fleet. "I'd like to have you both do it," he said. "You'll need to show Stephen the ropes, after all, Paul. Set a good example."
Jeremiah's head was swivelling back and forth, taking in this byplay. "Answer the door?"
"Aye, it's my job," Bran said, then corrected himself. "Our job, looks like. Ethan's too mean to hire a proper butler"
"that isn't true," Ethan said, mildly enough. "I just believe that Christmas is a time when everyone ought to have a family's welcome. A butler would be too cold a touch."
Jeremiah blinked. "What, your family?" Glancing over his shoulder, he shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his narrow butt scooting around on the wood. "Won't I be out of place, then?"
"It's a sort of family, Stephen," said Ethan. "They're all people like us."
"What, thieves and such?"
"And such, yes. Thieves, fair-traders, forgers, and the like. The shadow economy, as it were."
"So they're not your real relatives."
"Not by blood, no."
"All right," Jeremiah said, although the hesitation in his voice made it sound a bit less than all right.
Ethan gave him a little smile. "I'm so glad you approve, Stephen. Now sit up properly."
Jeremiah groaned under his breath and flung himself upright in his chair, then draped himself back against the seat-back in imitation of Ethan's own casual posture.
"Here!" Jeremiah wailed, shying away from one of the tailors.
Bran, leaning against the wall to await his turn, only snorted. Jeremiah looked especially small and lost in the midst of the circle of sharp-eyed fellows, protesting every time that they tried to touch him. "You know," said Bran, "if you'd just shut your gob, stand up straight, and hold bloody still, they'd be done in five minutes."
"I don't like them touching me, that's all," Jeremiah said darkly, but all the same he fell quiveringly still, only his wide eyes still darting back and forth.
Bran sighed and tuned out the fuss. The tailors had descended on them an hour ago, and there seemed to be no end to it. Bran had never liked these visits, particularly since Ethan always went into his embarrassing 'useless nob' routine while they were around. He didn't much care for posh dressing, either. Still, watching them tut over Jeremiah's terrible posture and his sloping shoulders was good for a laugh, he supposed.
Jeremiah was visibly quaking, his hands in fists. Still, somehow the tailors managed to rein him in long enough to measure their way across his shoulders and down his arms; it was only when one of them went for his inseam that the howl went up again.
Bran gritted his teeth. "They're not going to bloody well hurt you!" he snapped. "God's name, will you stop acting the baby already!"
The little flash of hurt on Jeremiah's face was momentarily very clear. "I'm not"
"You are!" Bran threw up his hands in defeat. "At least pretend that you're not snivelling!"
Jeremiah's jaw shut with a little click. His face went hard and his shoulders snapped into a perfect straight line, pulling him upright like someone had jammed a pole up his arse. The tailors, sensing their momentary advantage, descended on Jeremiah like a plague. A muscle in Jeremiah's cheek jumpedhe was grinding his teethbut he stood upright and still while the tape measures snapped around him. His eyes never left Bran, not even when one of the tailors knelt on the floor and did the hated inseam measurement. Even after Bran had had to turn away and look out the window, he could feel those narrowed eyes on him, not quite glaring.
The odd thing was that Jeremiah kept it up even after the tailors were done with him. He was still strutting around with his shoulders thrown back at dinnertime, and the expression on his face prompted Ethan to ask if Jeremiah was feeling all right. "I'm fine," Jeremiah said, his voice short. "I didn't think much of those tailors, that's all."
Ethan blinked, mildly enough. "I suppose they can be something of a trial," he said.
"I don't care for being messed about, either," said Jeremiah. "Used to be if someone wanted to put his hands on me like that..." He trailed off there, although the grim look remained.
"Mm," said Ethan, cutting himself another neat square of chicken. "Well. I'm glad you got through it all right."
Jeremiah's eyes flicked to Bran and away. "Still didn't like it," he said.
"No one likes it," Bran said, exasperated. "It's just something you've got to put up with, that's all. If you don't put up with it then you can't have your fancy clothes and you can't go to the party."
Jeremiah glanced back at him. "I know," he said. "But Ethan asked, and I answered. All right?"
"... right, right," Bran said, startled. He'd been expecting something more along the lines of well, maybe I don't want to go to some stupid party out of Jeremiah.
The venom had drained out of Jeremiah by the next morning, but he was still distant, obviously thinking about something else. He kept rolling his shoulders back and pulling himself uprightBran caught him at it half a dozen timesand he threw himself at his exercises with a vengeance that bemused Ethan into a watchful silence. "You'll need some new clothes soon," Ethan finally said, watching Jeremiah chin himself on the bar.
"Thought I was getting some," Jeremiah grunted. His feet were locked together at the ankle instead of kicking about.
"Well, yes. But I meant for everyday wear," Ethan said. "Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, stop."
Instead of stopping, Jeremiah pulled himself up three last times, on arms that were starting to shake, then dropped into a neat crouch on the floor. "So... how do I go about that, then? Can't just go down to the shops, can I?"
"Well, yes, I don't see why not."
Jeremiah rose to his feet and shook the soreness out of his arms. "What, really? It's just... I've only been out three or four times since I came, like, only for things like doctors and such."
"Is that so?" Ethan blinked, then frowned. "I suppose you're right about that. Completely slipped my mind." He clapped his hands. "Well! We'll treat it as training, then. Darken your hair, maybe change the shape of your face a bit, just in case we should run into someone you know. We'll see if we can't produce a Jeremiah that doesn't look like the usual Jeremiah."
"Jeremy," Jeremiah said, firmly.
"Jeremy," Jeremiah said again. "It still doesn't sound right, but I like it better than most anything elseplus maybe I can remember that proper... properly... since it's two-thirds my own name, right?"
Ethan tilted his head to the side and considered Jeremiah until Jeremiah ducked his head and developed a hunted expression. "Jeremy it is, then," Ethan finally said. He raised his voice. "Bran"
"I heard, I heard," Bran said. His bicep curls had slowed almost to nothing while he watched this mess in the mirrors, but now he picked up speed again.
"Do you want to come with us?"
"Nah, I'm all right," Bran said. "Like to have an afternoon to myself, you want the truth."
Jeremiah sniggered. For a heartbeat of time, the brat he'd been flooded his face. "Wants to toss off in peace and quiet, more like."
Bran flushed guiltily. "Jeremy," Ethan said in rebuke, but he was struggling not to smile.
"Whyn't you toss off, then," Bran told Jeremiah, jabbing two upraised fingers at him.
The bratty expression faded into something a little more evil. "Oh, you'd like that, would you," Jeremiah said, his grin twisting in on itself. "Keep you in mind next time I'm having a wank"
Ethan quite smoothly put his back to both of them, so that neither of them would see him laughing, although it was obvious from the way his shoulders shook; Bran dropped both dumb-bells into the rack with a clang and stalked off, maintaining what dignity he could.
An hour later Ethan and JeremiahJeremy, whateverwent slamming out of the house, Jeremiah chattering excitedly. The garage door went up and one of the cars pulled out.
Purely out of contrariness Bran didn't bother having a wank, although he'd been considering it before Jeremiah had caught him out on it. It was just something that he usually did whenever he got the house to himself, since it was the one time that he could count on a bit of privacy. It seemed like an awful waste, especially since Bran hadn't had the house to himself but a handful of times since Jeremiah moved in, but the idea that Jeremiah might somehow figure it out made Bran's skin all itch.
Still, one thought led to another, and after an hour of dithering about Bran found himself on the rain-swept roof of the veranda with one of the suction cups in his hand. He didn't particularly want to pick the locks on Jeremiah's doorthe old thumb-bolts were stiff as anything, and anyway Bran had this creeping sense that Jeremiah would know if his door had been openedbut the window seemed fair game. Bran knuckled the cup against the glass with a soft farting blup sound and hoicked the window open a few inches. Jeremiah hadn't started locking that, in any case.
Bran popped the suction cup off and pushed it into Jeremiah's room, to land on the floor. Pushing the window the rest of the way up, he ducked on in, eyes wide against the darkness, the hairs on the back of his neck all standing on end. He knew that Jeremiah was off with Ethan, and in any case he'd be able to feel it when the garage door went back up, but it still gave him a case of the jitters. Even after he'd flicked on the bathroom light Bran was still painfully aware that he was intruding.
The room didn't look all that much different than it had before Jeremiah had moved in, six months ago. Jeremiah still didn't own very much, and what he did own was mostly clothing and other dull, useful things. Still, the room was unquestionably his. It was the smell of it, Jeremiah's medications and soaps and, underneath it all, the weird muddy musty smell of pubertyBran hadn't known until just now that it had a smell, but there it was, all overactive hormones and muted body stink. It made Bran wonder what his own rooms smelt like, and that, in its turn, made him shiver.
Still, Bran was here now, so he poked about. Jeremiah's few clothes were almost all in the dresser, wedged helter-skelter into the drawers with little care for the cloth. His closet was nearly empty. A couple of jackets hung on the bar, but that was all. Jeremiah's bed was unmade, the sheets rucked up in the shape of his body. His hamper was half-full, a sweat-soaked t-shirt hanging halfway out to dangle its sleeves at the floor. Couldn't be doing much to help the smell in here.
The bathroom was equally impersonal. A few ancient pill bottles languished in the cabinetBran looked at them without much interestand a few toiletries were scattered here and there. The only real, personal touch were the few curly hairs that languished at the bottom of the tub, and Bran felt weird and ill just for noticing them.
He wandered back into Jeremiah's bedroom and flopped out on the unmade bed, not really thinking about it. The smell of Jeremiah was strong, here, and not completely unpleasant, since Jeremiah showered every night before bed. Bran tucked his hands behind his head and stared up at the darkened ceiling. He wasn't sure what he'd come in here to find, actually; he'd just needed to come in and make sure Jeremiah wasn't up to anything awful, like stockpiling stolen things against the day that he left. There wasn't anything incriminating in here, though. There wasn't even a bottle of hand lotion in the night-stand, like there was in Bran's room. Not even a box of tissues. Jeremiah must do all his fabled wanking in the bathnow that was a thought that made Bran's stomach flop about uneasily. He put a hand on it, to quiet it. Outside the rain pattered vaguely on the roof, and the house's massive old heating system kicked in after a while, and Bran tapped his fingers on his stomach and thought about nothing.
He awoke out of his half-doze when the garage door rumbled up, a thing that he felt more than heard. Bran snapped back to himself in the nest of Jeremiah's sheets with his hand tented over the front of his trousers and the thing in there as hard as rockhe'd been running his hand back and forth while he lay there, not even thinking about it. Horrified, Bran leapt out of the bed and pitched himself out the window, nearly falling straight off the veranda in his semi-controlled panic. It was easier to close the window than to open it, at least, and he was back in his room with the suction cup safely stowed away by the time that he heard Jeremiah thumping heavily up the stairs. Bran wheezed out a relieved breath and scrubbed his fingers through his hair.
"Bran, we're home," Ethan called, a moment later.
Bran swallowed. "Aye, I heard!" he called back.
Jeremiah had had his hair cut off short againthe hair on the back and sides of his head was so short as to be nearly non-existentand the trip had imbued him with a ridiculous amount of energy. Only Bran's sweating sense of guilt kept him from strangling the exuberant Jeremiah at dinner that night.
Returning the stolen suction cup to its place was a tiny odyssey all by itself. Bran waited until Jeremiah was in bed and Ethan was closed up in his workshop before picking his way downstairs, but his nerves were all so on edge that every little sound nearly made him scream. Several times he fancied he was being stalked, and he whipped around to see... nothing at all. It was ridiculous, of course. Jeremiah still sounded like a herd of elephants when he walked, and if Ethan was following Bran, well, Bran would never notice, would he? Still, Bran was breathing hard by the time he closed the suction cup up with its fellows, and he skittered back towards the stairs with his gut churning.
Safe again, Bran threw himself into bed and shut his eyes, willing himself to sleep. It didn't workit never workedBran fancied he could smell Jeremiah right through the wall, and he knew that he could hear him, snorting and kicking in his sleep. Rolling over onto his side, Bran curled up into as tight a ball as he could and stuck his face under the covers, so that he could only smell himselfit didn't help. He reeked of nervous perspiration.
If he took a shower now, Jeremiah would hear him, and would assume he was jerking off in thereBran ground his teeth in rage and flipped over onto his other side, putting his back most firmly to Jeremiah's room and Jeremiah alike.
Bran woke, abruptly, lost and confused in the darkness, unsure of what had woken him. For a moment he lay there, groping after his muddy thoughtsthen the muted thumping sound came again, kicking him into full wakefulness. It came from next door. Jeremiah was up and moving about, up to something, probably just using the looJeremiah's bedroom door opened, stealthily enough, and closed again with a faint click. Jeremiah padded off down the stairs. He wasn't silent, but he was quiet enough, for someone who didn't know any better.
Rolling over, Bran squinted at the clock. Just past four AM. Jeremiah was just hungry or something, Bran thought. It made sense. Enough sense that Bran should have gone back to sleep. Instead, he rolled out of bed and wrestled into a t-shirt, then let himself out.
The hallway rug was soft under his bare feet. Bran drifted down the back stairs like a ghost, breathing through his open mouth to keep himself quiet, hugging one wall to keep the stairs from creaking. Jeremiah couldn't possibly hear him coming, but still Bran went slowly, his nerves screwed to a high pitch. Blood roared in his ears to counteract the silence; starbursts exploded in his eyes to dismiss the darkness. Somehow he made it down the stairs without incident.
He heard the sounds before he saw the light: scuffling, thumping, harsh breathing. Bran dropped neatly into a crouch and considered the area. The kitchen was dark. So was the exercise room. The only light was a dirty yellow bar oozing out from under the door that led to the side hallway, where the suction-cup obstacle course was laid out. Bran edged in that direction. The sounds grew louder even as they receded, towards the far end of the hall.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what Jeremiah was doing. Bran crouched outside the closed door and listened for a minute or two, as Jeremiah twisted up and down the long hallway, breathing hoarsely and occasionally muttering under his breath. Did he always get up at four in the morning to do this?
Bran's musing was interrupted by the sound of Jeremiah falling heavily to the floor just on the other side of the door. "Shit," Jeremiah wheezed, then went silent again; Bran shivered and edged away from the door with absurd care, creeping back up the stairs as fast as he could go.
"and roll forward along the outside of your foot," Ethan said, taking a step in extreme slow-motion to demonstrate. "But really, what's most important is to pull your weight just a tick before your heel touches the floor."
"All right," said Jeremiah. He was hunkered down on the mats, watching Ethan's feet. Bran was in the corner, working with the squeeze-balls and trying to ignore them both.
"Of course, it's all for naught if you're wearing the wrong shoes," Ethan said, padding in an exaggeratedly slow circle around the crouching Jeremiah. "It can be done well enough in trainers, but for the most part, you'll want specially-made shoes. And, of course, your work-suit will have padded soles."
Jeremiah abruptly got tired of crouching and sat on his skinny arse on the mats. "Are those shoes special, then?"
"These? Oh, yes." Ethan lifted his foot to show Jeremiah one of the light-eating mat-black soles. "I suppose you'll find it very funny to know that they're men's dancing shoes, only with a few... additions."
"Give it a try," Ethan said.
Jeremiah bounced to his feet and flicked his hands out, for balance. "So, heel first"
"pull your weight"
"right," said Jeremiah, easing his heel down on the mats. "Then roll forward"
Jeremiah took one exaggerated step, then another, then caught sight of himself in the mirror and started snickering so hard that he missed the next step. "I don't look half silly."
Bran could only snort in agreement. The downside to Ethan's particular variety of soft-footing it was that it tended to exaggerate the roll of the hips. On Jeremiah, it turned into a sort of crotch-first poncy sashayto be fair, Ethan walked that way as well, although not quite so aggressively. Jeremiah's eyes met Bran's in the mirror, and he grinned and thrust his crotch at his reflectionBran yanked his eyes away and did his level best to crush the sand-filled bag in his hand.
That isn't what I meant, Bran thought, speaking less to God and more to himself even though his hands were still clasped on the prayer rail. At the end of the pew, Liam cleared his throat with a rattle. It isn't what I meant at all!