Billy pulled back his foot and slammed it into Noah's stomach. Coated with dust and blood, the younger boy curled into a defensive ball and let out an agonized choke; scarlet spit dribbled from his mouth onto the dirt. "You'll do what I tell you next time, maggot!" Billy shouted, pulling back his arm for another powerful blow.
But something caught him by the wrist, and he spun to find himself inches from a face contorted in rage. "Jude!" Billy exclaimed, as Jude grabbed him by his fat neck and pulled him close. "Come on—we were just messing around—" He slapped at Jude's arm uselessly as his broad face began to turn red.
"If I ever," Jude snarled, "find out you've laid a hand on my brother again, you're going to be picking your teeth up off the sidewalk! Now get out of my sight!" Jude tossed Billy aside and shook out the strained muscles his arms. The boy was as heavy as he looked, taller and bulkier than any fourteen-year-old Jude had ever seen, his arms and legs bulging with muscle. The outline of Jude's fingers were still red on his skin as he scampered away.
Noah coughed and crawled to his knees, and Jude approached him hesitantly, noticing the humiliation that he saw on Noah's face. Despite their relation, they bore little resemblance to each other. Noah was short, Jude tall; Noah was pale, Jude tan; Noah was painfully slim, Jude lean but muscular. The only features they shared in common were a crop of dark brown hair and a pair of green eyes—though Jude's were a decidedly dark jade, while Noah's leaned toward hazel."… Are you okay?" Jude asked. Filth covered Noah's pants and jacket, and there was a small red stain on the worn fabric near his knee. He'd been beaten to the ground.
"Fine," Noah replied with a sniff, wiping blood from his face with the back of his hand. He kept his eyes down as he began to scoop his textbooks off the schoolyard with an obvious attempt at haste, although his movements were languid with pain.
Jude crouched down next to him and helped him pick up the texts. "What was that about?" he asked in a gentle voice, glancing at Noah's battered face out of the corner of his eye.
"Usual," Noah answered softly. Jude grimaced. This had been going on for months now, ever since Jude had left school to find work. Noah's slight build made hm an easy target for brutes like Billy, and without Jude there to protect him, Noah brought home new injuries almost daily.
Noah blew dust off the cover of one of his books and stood. "You shouldn't have done that," he said, and the anger in his tone made Jude recoil in surprise. "They already think I'm a wimp; now they're going to say I just run to you for everything!"
Noah started down the sidewalk back to their home; Jude huffed and stormed after him. "So next time I should just let Billy or one of his friends break a rib?" he demanded. "You can't just ignore this and expect it to go away, Noah; they're not going to just eventually get bored with you if you keep rolling over!"
The aged buildings hemmed them in as they moved down the dirty streets into the heart of the city, if Ludo could be called such; it was quite small, with a population not over ten thousand. The heavy overcast of the sky made the alleys seem gloomy and dark.
Jude stepped onto the stoop of their townhouse, a cramped and rundown home they'd been lucky to get, although they'd spent the better part of their inheritance on only eight hundred square feet of space. Their parents had lived in a fine apartment near the water, and the rent had been much more than Jude could afford, although what he saved on monthly payments he often spent on repairs.
He unlocked the door, stepped into the narrow hallway, and flipped on their dim, bare light bulb, which flickered to life above them. Passing him without a word, Noah kicked off his shoes and headed to the kitchen table, where he spread out his books with hands that still shook.
"Let's get you cleaned up," Jude said, removing a fresh cloth and some antiseptic from a cupboard in their small kitchen. "This is going to sting," he warned, dampening the cloth with the antiseptic and reaching forward to dab the gash on Noah's nose. Noah didn't wince when the cloth touched his raw flesh, and Jude felt his heart weaken. Fourteen years old, and already used to pain.
"It's not a matter of size," Jude told him. "You can beat him if you know how."
"Maybe him," Noah murmured. "But not him and all his friends, not by myself. If somebody like me fought him and won, he'd be humiliated. He and the others would made everyone pay for what I'd done."
Jude sighed. Though he hated to admit it, Noah was right. The schoolyard was a dangerous place, as full of monsters as the rest of the world. If it had been within Jude's power, he would have never let Noah out of his sight, but since their parents had died, he had been solely responsible for their family's income. It was hard enough to find the time to pick Noah up from school each day.
He tossed the cloth onto the table and returned to the kitchen, grabbing some bandages from the drawer and then scraping off a chunk of freezer frost from the side of the ice box. "Here," he muttered, pressing the ice onto Noah's swelling eye. Then he started to feel around Noah's ribs. Noah could be shockingly stoic when he set his mind to it, but no one would have an easy time keeping a straight face if a broken bone was agitated. Noah didn't wince or cry out, leaving Jude the small relief of knowing that Billy's beating had caused only bruises.
"Do you have to work this weekend?" Noah asked. He began to remove the ice from his eye, but Jude snapped his finger and pointed at him sternly. Noah gave him a sheepish look, and then shook the frozen, red fingers that had been holding the cold compress, wrapping them in the cloth that Jude had discarded before returning the ice to its original position.
"I'm unloading some grain that's coming in tomorrow, and I've got a shift at the butcher shop on Sunday. Mr. Feeber asked if I could fix his roof, too; I was hoping to do it tonight, since it looks like it might rain soon," Jude answered, sighing as he leaned forward against the kitchen counter.
"Oh." Noah looked away toward the window, from which pale light streamed in dimly.
Jude straightened up and walked over, sitting down at the wooden table across from him. "You had something you wanted to do?" he asked softly.
"Not anything important." Noah began to fiddle with the pages of his schoolbooks.
"What's not important?"
"Noah." Jude yanked the books away from him, and Noah slid his hands into his lap.
"It's just the Festival of Bells is here this year. On Sunday," Noah told him. "Like I said, it's stupid."
"It's not," Jude said—though he had possessed nothing but ridicule for the event in the past. As far as he was aware, it was some kind of lottery, designed to cater to lazy fools who believed more in luck than in the strength of their own two hands. Their father, who'd worked for everything he'd possessed, had particularly despised the annual ritual. But perhaps Noah held some understanding of the Festival that Jude lacked. "Tell me about it."
Noah looked up at him hesitantly, searching Jude's face for some indication of sincerity and honest interest. "Well, every year there's this festival where the faerie Favor grants a wish for whoever he chooses. People come from all over for a chance. Some cities even have game booths and food stands and… What's wrong?"
Despite Jude's efforts, his face reflected the increasingly sour flavor of his thoughts. "So there'll be… crowds," Jude said. "Big crowds."
"We don't have to go if you don't want. Let's not go," Noah said quickly.
Some part of Jude readily agreed. But Noah spent most of his time sequestered in his room, reading and studying alone. Some time in town, however fruitless, might do him good. "Did you have a wish?" he asked, glancing up at Noah's face.
"Then we should go." He coughed. "It's not like I'm going to be able to get any work done with all those people yelling and running around anyway. It's going to be murder even going outside to get the mail…"
He reached up and flipped idly through the pages of Noah's math textbook, skimming the pictures and equations through he understood little of it. Noah needed no help with homework, but looking over these books always filled Jude with a vague sense of regret. He had never dedicated himself to his studies, too busy with odd jobs and childish business schemes. He wouldn't have been able to assist his brother even if Noah asked for some tutelage.
Noah looked to the side, fussing with his fingers and the hems of his sleeves. "So how much did that thing with the plumbing end up costing?" he asked.
More than Jude had possessed. He'd had to beg for an extra shift at the butcher's shop to pay for it. He let out a short sigh and shut Noah's textbook with a dull snap. "I'll take care of it," he said.
Noah fidgeted. "I talked to Mr. Feeble at the drug store yesterday," he said.
Jude scowled, aware of where this conversation was going, and shook his head. "No."
"He said he could use someone who was good with figures—"
"Noah, that's my problem. You're fourteen years old; your job is this stuff," Jude said, waving the math textbook, "not freaking out over how much money we have."
"Jude, I could handle it, just like you did when you were my age!" Noah said, looking up at him.
"And did you see my grades?" Jude countered,.
"Because you didn't care about grades!" Noah said. He leaned forward, and his eyes were pleading. "I know we need the money, and I know that I could help if you let me!" he breathed. "But—you're always doing this; you're always… acting like I can't do anything for myself, like I’m still a little kid!"
"You are still a little kid!" Jude exclaimed with an exasperated expression. Noah glanced sharply away, cheeks flushed with a mixture of anger and disappointment, and Jude gritted his teeth. His words, it seemed, had stuck a sensitive nerve. He collapsed back into his chair and looked Noah in the face, wishing his brother would meet his eyes. "Listen. I get that you want to be all grown up already, okay? I get it," Jude told him.
"No, you don't," Noah muttered dismissively.
"Yeah, I do," Jude insisted. "What, you think I wasn't exactly the same when I was your age? But being an adult isn't all it's cracked up to be, and you don't get your childhood back when it's gone. So take advantage of it while you can. I'll take care of the rest." He poked Noah’s foot with his own, grinning when he evoked a tiny upward twitch of the lips.
The soft smile lingered on Noah's mouth as his gaze drifted downward. But the pensive sadness didn't leave his eyes, and he shook his head almost imperceptibly, leaning back in his chair. Jude frowned. "Right," Noah agreed, his voice a listless and defeated whisper.
Jude's mouth settled into a thin line, and frustration grew inside him like a fire. Noah wouldn't be so sullen if he understood how difficult Jude's life could sometimes be. How terrifying it was to stumble through each day with no one to help you and no one who cared, aware that each failure would affect your whole family. No, Noah wouldn't be so desperate to grow up if he'd realized how much Jude had sacrificed to give him the childhood he was so quick to discard.
But Jude swallowed the anger, letting it settle like a leaden pit in his gut. Young as he was, deluded as he was, Noah was his best friend and all he had. He'd get over this job phase soon enough, and Jude refused to alienate him over something so unimportant.
Noah scratched his head and let his hands fall back in his lap, biting his lip. "I just—" He sighed and frowned, eyes roaming as he searched for the words. "You shouldn't have to do this all by yourself," he said. "I wish…" His grip tightened, knuckles turning white.
Jude leaned back, watching Noah with care. "Wish what?" he asked softly. Noah remained silent. "Are you… going to ask Favor to bring Mom and Dad back?"
"No." Noah shook his head. "Favor can't revive the dead, or reverse time."
"Then what?" Jude asked.
Noah swallowed. "… Nothing; it's not important," he murmured. "I should get back to work," he said, flicking open his textbook before Jude could press further. There was shame in the sudden hunch of his shoulders, an embarrassment that only fueled Jude's curiosity, and he wondered if he should press further.
He decided against it. This "Favor" person, whoever he was, would pass Noah over at the Festival as he would pass so many others over. But an unspoken wish could be forgotten more easily; when it went unfulfilled, the sting of disappointment would not be quite so keen. And Noah could go back to his normal life pretending the whole thing had never happened.