so breathe as ghosts are born
here comes the breath, comes the unwanted guest
the flock before dogs taking shape
in henna and feathers it sweeps through the desert
when something you love is at stake
something you love is at stake
In the liquid July sunlight, amidst the swaying grasses and the sinking mud, the lake is a glittering green jewel. It could just about pass for pretty on a day like this – cloudless, golden, the languid heart of late afternoon beating hot and bright. The air smells rich and fresh with life.
Vincent watches his brother peel a leech off his naked stomach.
Gilbert is brave, much braver than Vincent could ever be, peeling monsters off of him like that. His face is stern and quiet, concentrating on hurting neither the leech nor himself as he goes about his careful extraction. Vincent sits in the grass a safe distance away, his arms laced around his legs. The shade of the willow tree overhead helps with the heat, but still he has to hike up his bloomers above his knees to keep from sweating too much. The sunlight makes him sick. His skinny body is ill and pale; Gilbert’s is strong and dark, shaped well after nineteen years. The taut muscles of his stomach twitch softly, the leech only hanging on halfway now. It doesn’t want to let go. Vincent can scarcely blame it.
“You get so worked up every time this happens,” Gilbert says quietly, looking down at himself rather than at Vincent. “It doesn’t hurt.”
“Still,” Vincent mumbles. “I don’t know how it doesn’t nauseate you…”
Gilbert shrugs. “Just a bug.”
“A bug that eats your blood, Gil.”
Gilbert shrugs again, some brief, well-contained flash of irritation passing over his face before it’s gone in an instant. “Guess it didn’t choose to be that way. It needs to survive somehow.”
Vincent smiles, sad and fond. The grasses sway around him, itching the sensitive skin of his calves.
“There we go,” Gilbert says, flicking the leech off at last. It makes a soft sound as it hits the water and sinks down. The oval of skin on Gilbert’s stomach that it had latched onto is marked red like a bruise. Vincent stares at it, feeling nostalgic.
“Feel better now?” Gilbert asks him.
“A little.” Vincent’s gaze remains rooted to Gilbert’s bare stomach. “It might die without you, though.”
“I doubt it,” Gilbert says, wringing out his wet hair between his hands. “It’ll just find someone else to feed off of.”
Vincent smiles again, slow and quiet. “Is that how you feel about it?”
Gilbert pauses in wringing out his hair. When his eyes settle on Vincent, there’s a hurt sort of coldness in his stare that makes Vincent’s chest feel warm and full of love. He loves those looks, the particularly brutal ones that would chill anyone else to the bone. He loves the mornings when Gilbert is loud and horrible, when the servants hate him for the reasons they love Vincent in turn – because Vincent is quiet, docile, meek like a hurt kitten, whereas Gilbert is a bright gold inferno ready to burn down all in his path for the fate this world has handed him.
He’s wonderful. And in one week, Vincent will die for him.
“Glen will be unimpressed with your soaked trousers,” Vincent offers as means of changing the topic, just as he knows Gilbert wants him to do. “This is the third time this week. He’s long since warned you to stop dirtying your clothes.”
“And Jack will be upset when you break out in hives because of that grass on your legs,” Gilbert fires back. “Looks like we’re both rebelling.”
“I wouldn’t call it that, personally.” Vincent unwinds his arms from around his knees and stretches out his legs in the grass. “For you, yes, perhaps, but for me…I just wanted to spend some time with you today.”
Gilbert watches him for a few moments before turning away, stepping out of the water fully and popping his back with a backwards stretch of his arms, hands clasped together. Vincent watches the burnt orange sunlight lap over Gilbert’s brown skin. The lake water drips off of him in glittering blinks and patters onto the grass at his bare feet. His rolled-up trousers are soaked through to the skin, clinging to his thighs as he stretches. He’s purposely avoiding Vincent’s eyes, as always.
They’re both silent for a while, Gilbert stretching and Vincent listening to the birds sing their songs like little bells in the trees. Their soft gleaming feathers make a quick thought bloom in Vincent’s mind. “Gil,” he says softly, “does Raven ever talk to you?”
“Does Raven converse with you, or are they more of the silent type?”
“I can’t really define it that way.” Gilbert runs a hand through his wet curls to swipe them out of his eyes. “I mean, when we talk, it’s not in the way you and I are talking right now. It’s just different.”
“Then what is it like? I’m curious.”
The breath that Gilbert lets out is long and slow, patient but only just barely so. Vincent knows he’s trying. He thinks of how delicately he’d gone about pulling the leech off of his stomach. Yes, Gilbert is trying very hard, harder than anyone in this whole world has ever tried at anything. Vincent wishes he wouldn’t.
Gilbert sits down in the grass a few feet away from Vincent, uprooting a dandelion and touching the soft fuzzy head of it with his fingertips. “Raven talks to me when they…know I need someone to talk to. I’d almost call it advice.”
“So they’re a mentor.”
“I don’t know.” Gilbert delicately pulls a portion of dandelion fuzz and lets it flutter off into the wind; such a tender, quiet act of violence. “Raven in particular just seems to like me. The other chains aren’t nearly as talkative.”
Vincent listens. The grass grazing against his legs is already starting to make him break out along his sick, sensitive skin.
“But I don’t consider it some privilege,” Gilbert says, some vague touch of a shadow to his voice now. “I’m not special. There’ve been countless Glens before me. Raven probably told them all the same things they tell me.”
“I think you’re very special, Gil.”
Gilbert’s expression is painfully tight for a moment before he turns his face away, turns toward the sun and lets it wash him in its giving light. It eats him right up, just as the tree’s shade drapes itself over Vincent like a protective cloak. The cloak shifts dark over Vincent’s white shoulders as he leans in closer to where Gilbert sits, and he asks, “Do they ever talk about me?”
Gilbert shoots him an icy look that lasts but a moment – but Vincent sees it, relishes it, because at least Gilbert is feeling something. He can’t stand it when his brother is numb, when his flame is pinched out by circumstance and exhaustion; he can’t stand it when Gilbert’s eyes are touched hollow, so hollow and dark and cold just like the Glen who came before him.
“They – ” Gilbert stops short, rubs his eyes with his fingertips and looks awfully tired. His voice is like something small wrung between two fierce hands when he says, “They know your name.”
“Alright,” Vincent says, soft and easy as he leans back. “Alright, Gil. That’s fine.”
Gilbert gets to his feet, mumbling something incoherent. When he bends over to grab his shirt from the grass, the lean planes of his back shift and move like an animal’s. Everything about Gilbert is dark and wild, wolfish, each movement laced with some half-contained energy that reminds Vincent of something on the hunt. Even just pulling his shirt on seems almost violent, wholly beautiful. But you’re too gentle to really kill anything, Vincent thinks. You won’t be able to throw me back in the water after you pluck me off next week. You won’t be able to sleep for weeks thereafter.
Or perhaps you’ll sleep better.
Vincent yawns wide and reclines in the grass, squinting in the sunlight to make out Gilbert’s shape a few paces away. He stretches his arms out in his brother’s direction, long sleeves flowing down his wrists like water. “Come lie with me,” he murmurs.
“It’s too hot out, Vince.”
“It’s lovely in the shade.” Vincent smiles again, teeth hidden. “Though you do look so nice in the sun.”
Gilbert opens his mouth as if to speak but closes it just as quickly. His shoulders rise in a quick breath, then pause as he holds it. His pretty mouth is terse and tight, eyes wild with grief for one stricken moment before the look is gone, or rather forced away into darkness. And then his face has nothing on it. Vincent’s smile fades. You look so much like a true Glen when you make that face. Nothing like yourself.
It takes some coaxing, but Gilbert eventually comes to lie beside Vincent in the grass, barely breathing. Vincent’s spindly arms wrap around his shoulders as he tucks close against Gilbert’s side; the scent of him is earthy, smoky, raw. Gilbert’s body is stiff and nervous in Vincent’s arms until something within him breaks apart, and then the tears come.
“Don’t cry,” Vincent says, the words a sweet lie against Gilbert’s warm neck. “There’s no use in crying. I don’t mind what’s to come. I don’t fear it.”
Gilbert says nothing, only covers his eyes with both palms and weeps like a child.
“I don’t mind, Gil,” Vincent repeats, a gentle whisper settled atop Gilbert’s pulse. “I don’t mind dying for you. So don’t cry.”
“I hate this.”
“Yes. But I love you.”
Gilbert doesn’t reply – Vincent doesn’t expect him to – but his tears are sweet on the tongue and so Vincent tastes them, humming softly, feeling Gilbert’s pulse thrum and march beneath his lips.
It takes Gilbert a long time to calm down, which Vincent appreciates; his heart pumps two beats faster for all the whirlwind moments when his brother allows himself to become a hurricane of feeling rather than a half-empty well draining deeper with each passing day.
When Gilbert sits upright, Vincent’s arms fall away from him slowly, resting once more in the grass.
The sun flares down upon Gilbert’s slouching, shivering body, drowning him in light.
“Look,” he whispers. “I’ll…I’ll figure something out. I swear on it. We can just – we can run away, Vince, we can get away from this place and have a new life, a real life, and none of this business ever has to happen at all. We can stop it before it starts.”
Vincent watches him with sleepy eyes, smiling and hopeless. Because it’s already started. This is so much bigger than the both of them; Vincent has recognized that from the very beginning, but Gilbert, naïve, furious Gilbert, has always held onto some delusional scrap of doubt, some wayward hope that Vincent knows will never play out as he promises it will.
“Do you believe me, Vince?” Gilbert asks on a murmur, not looking at him. “You know I’m going to save the both of us, right?”
Vincent smiles down at Gilbert’s left hand. “Yes, brother. Of course I do.”
The water drips quietly from the ends of Gilbert’s hair as he whispers about faraway countries where no one would know them. If they run far enough to become invisible to the golden lights, no one in Sablier would bother finding them. (Vincent knows that isn’t true; the golden lights always find you.) A new Glen would be chosen, hopefully, maybe – and Gilbert knows these things are complicated, yes, but surely there’s a way for the both of them to get out of this alive, and I’m not going to let them take my only brother away if I can stop it I’ll kill every fucking person who gets in my way before I let them do that –
Vincent’s smile is as light as a feather while he listens, not believing a word.
Gilbert has been talking like that for years.